A European Union approval of a landmark free trade deal with Vietnam, absent any concrete improvement to its human rights record, would give Hanoi carte blanche to continue with violations, a rights group warned Monday, on the eve of an EU vote on the pact.
The EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), inked in June, would eliminate 99 percent of tariffs on goods between the bloc and Southeast Asian country, although some would be reduced over a 10-year period and others will be limited by quotas.
The European Parliament is scheduled to vote to approve the agreement on Tuesday over the objections of international and Vietnamese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), who last week urged lawmakers to postpone consent on the EVFTA until Vietnam’s government agrees to protect the rights of laborers and ensure human rights.
Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Monday, Claudio Francavilla, EU officer for New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the EVFTA an “unprecedented opportunity” to leverage Hanoi into making “concrete human rights progress.”
“Not doing this and giving swift consent to the ratification when there has been pretty much no meaningful new improvement on the human rights situation in the country means wasting a very big opportunity,” said Francavilla, whose rights group was among nearly 30 that last week expressed regret over an initial approval to proceed by the parliament’s International Trade Committee (INTA).
But he expressed hope that efforts by NGOs to inform Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) about the situation in Vietnam and the opportunity that the EVFTA represents would lead lawmakers to withhold their consent on Tuesday.
“This is a government that clearly thinks transactionally—it is immune to any expression of criticism from the international community,” Francavilla said.
“This is why the NGOs are putting forth so much effort this time, because there is leverage. This [trade deal] is something that [Vietnam’s] government wants and, again, this is an opportunity that the MEPs should not waste.”
Sending a message
According to Francavilla, Vietnam has made “small, positive developments” to its rights record, but had failed to release its political prisoners—who are believed to number between 140 and 300—end restrictions on freedom of speech, and reform its penal code.
He said that the vast majority of activists behind bars in Vietnam are there “because of the draconian penal code provisions in Vietnam that pretty much criminalize any expression of dissent and criticism against the government,” while the same provisions deny workers the ability to enjoy the labor rights they are entitled to in the country’s constitution.
“Vietnam can ratify all the ILO [International Labour Organization] conventions and legislation that it wants, but as long as those penal code provisions remain in place, the ratification of these international instruments remains close to meaningless,” Francavilla added.
Approving the EVFTA on Tuesday “would make things more complicated” in pressuring Vietnam to ensure protections for human rights, he said.
“If MEPs say yes to the deal now, without any improvement and without the prospects for any improvement, the message that is sent to Hanoi is that all the calls for improvements don't really matter because once [the EU] had the leverage, they didn't use it and … Vietnam does not care about international criticism.”
Last week, NGOs presented four recommendations that they said should be “minimum requirements” for the European Parliament to agree to the deal with Hanoi.
Vietnam should amend or repeal “draconian laws,” especially those used to detain activists, journalists and human rights defenders; release political prisoners; commit to ratifying ILO Convention No. 87, which ensures freedom of association and protects the right to organize; and create an independent monitoring and complaints mechanism for those who would be harmed by the EVFTA.
The EU is Vietnam’s second-largest export market after the U.S., mostly for garment and footwear products, and in 2018 the Southeast Asian nation sent U.S. $42.5 billion worth of goods and services there, according to official data. Vietnam imported U.S. $13.8 billion from the EU that year.
The Vietnamese government has said that the EVFTA will boost EU exports to Vietnam by more than 15 percent and those from Vietnam to the EU by 20 percent by 2020, while the agreement will increase Vietnam’s gross domestic product by up to 5.3 percent annually between 2024 and 2028.
Full withdrawal unlikely for Cambodia
The vote to approve the Vietnam trade pact is scheduled a day ahead of an expected decision by the EU on whether to withdraw Cambodia’s tariff-free access to its markets under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for developing nations.
On Nov. 12, the EU warned in a preliminary report that Cambodia has not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its EBA status, noting the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February last year.
Over the weekend, the Nikkei Asian Review reported that a document published to the European Parliament website by Italian MEP Danilo Oscar Lancini of the far-right Identity and Democracy Party (ID Party) “appeared to point to a partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA privileges,” adding that while it did not specify which products had lost duty-free access, it noted that rice was not among them.
In the document, the ID Party expresses concern that the European Commission had “decided through a delegated act to withdraw Cambodia's EBA status on some products” but “rice is not listed among these products,” and suggests that large amounts of rice imports from the country, as well as from Vietnam, have “distorted the European market and led to the launch of safeguards.”
The Nikkei report was followed by one from The Financial Times on Sunday which cited “three people close to the process” as saying that the European Commission has decided to remove duty-free access for “some” of the goods Cambodia exports to the bloc under the EBA program, but was “likely to refrain from approving a blanket withdrawal of all the trade preferences.”
The sources told the FT that Brussels is expected to “maintain some support for the garments sector to help protect the livelihoods of factory workers.”
Cambodia is the second-largest beneficiary of EBA trade preferences, accounting for more than 18 percent of all imports to the EU market under the EBA scheme in 2018.
EU imports from Cambodia totaled 5.3 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) that year, nearly all of which entered the EU duty-free, taking advantage of EBA preferences.
Clothing and textiles—a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs around one million people—account for around 75 percent of EU imports from the Southeast Asian nation.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.