As Australia prepares to enter human rights discussions with Vietnam this week, Human Rights Watch urged Canberra to pressure Hanoi to stop suppressing of freedom of expression and release all its political prisoners.
The New York-based NGO said in a statement that although the relationship between the two countries has deepened, Australia is not doing enough to address rights concerns publicly, citing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s silence on the matter during his August 2019 visit to Hanoi.
“Australia’s close ties with Vietnam mean the Australian government has a responsibility to speak out publicly on Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The crackdown on basic rights in Vietnam is escalating, with more political prisoners being unjustly detained for longer terms.
Vietnam has imprisoned at least 131 people for exercising basic rights, some of whom have serious health conditions that are made worse by their detention, the statement said.
Human Rights Watch also cited the case of Chau Van Kham, an Australian citizen and pro-democracy activist who has been detained in Vietnam since January.
“Australia should be publicly calling for the immediate release of Chau Van Kham, an Australian citizen, and all other political prisoners who have been unjustly jailed in Vietnam,” Pearson said.
“Australia should press Vietnam to change its rights-violating criminal procedure code so that all criminal detainees have prompt access to legal counsel as international law requires.”
The statement also documented how activists and bloggers suffer physical assault by “official or government-connected thugs” – groups of men who attack rights activists, plaintiffs in land grab cases and others at odds with Hanoi.
The NGO also expressed concern over Vietnam’s cybersecurity law, which went into effect in January, saying the law is problematic because it grants authorities the ability to censor online expression.
It was also critical of Google and Facebook for complying with Hanoi’s requests to remove online content, including links to articles critical of the Party and the State.
“Vietnam is increasingly aggressive in its approach to online censorship, including its enforcement of the cybersecurity law, an attempt to silence critical voices online,” Pearson said. “Australia should press Vietnam to amend this law and to end the government’s systemic repression of dissidents and peaceful activists.”
The 16th Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue opens Thursday in Canberra.
Discussions with Laos
Meanwhile, the Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a statement detailing human rights discussions with Laos held on Aug. 12.
“The two sides had frank and constructive discussions on an extensive range of issues, including civil and political rights, rights of vulnerable people, legal issues, engagement with international human rights mechanisms and bilateral cooperation on human rights in regional and international arenas,” the Australian statement said.
“During the dialogue, individual cases of concern were raised by Australia,” it said.
Australia said that Laos “provided updated information and explanation on circumstances surrounding each case and reaffirmed that all conducts and procedures were implemented based on its legal and policy frameworks.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Right’s Watch’s Asia division, expressed concern over agreements made by Laos during the dialogue, citing past history.
“Our concern is that the Lao government will promise many things but will not enforce the actual promises,” said Robertson in an interview with RFA’s Lao Service.
“We hope that they raised issues about disappearances … the ongoing restriction of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of peaceful public assembly.”
Robertson also said land seizures, particularly in dam construction projects that are the centerpiece of the country’s economic development plans, should be covered in human rights dialogues with Laos’ communist government.
Additional reporting by RFA’s Lao Service.