A special U.N. envoy on a mission to Vietnam has accused the authoritarian government of “serious violations” of religious freedom and said the country’s police harassed and intimidated people he had wanted to meet in the course of his investigations.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, acknowledged that the one-party communist government was increasing efforts to improve freedom of religion but said he observed during his 11-day visit that “serious violations of freedom of religion or belief are a reality in Vietnam.”
He said the violations affected independent groups of Buddhists, including Hoa Hao-Buddhists, and of the Cao Dai religion, some Protestant communities, and activists within the Catholic Church.
Hanoi officially recognizes nearly a dozen religions in a country of 90 million, but those not sanctioned are banned.
Bielefeldt said religious communities in Vietnam should be able to operate also outside of the officially established channels for religious practice.
Besides, official registration status with the government “is no guarantee that freedom of religion or belief is fully respected,” he said at the end of his visit, aimed at assessing the level of freedom of religion in the mainly Buddhist nation.
“Granting autonomy for religious communities to function independently would be a litmus test for the development of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam,” he said. “In the current situation, their ability to operate as independent communities is unsafe and restricted.”
“Freedom of religion or belief has the status of universal human rights to be respected prior to, and independent of, any particular acts of administrative approval,” he stressed.
Bielefeldt’s trip to Vietnam was scheduled from July 21 to 31, but he said his planned visits to An Giang, Gia Lai, and Kon Tum provinces were “unfortunately interrupted” from July 28-30.
He said he had received “credible information” that some people with whom he had wanted to meet had “been under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from traveling by the police.”
“Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.”
Vietnam Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said Bielefeldt's reports of interference were a "misunderstanding," according to Reuters news agency.
"According to resolution number 5/2 of the Human Rights Council, the host country is responsible for security and absolute safety for the Special Rapporteur," Binh was quoted saying at a news conference.
As the Special Rapporteur was flying to Ho Chi Minh City for meetings, government officials placed under virtual house arrest several prominent dissidents, including Nguyen Dan Que, Duong Thi Tan---the ex-wife of imprisoned blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay---blogger Pham Chi Dung, and former political prisoner Pham Ba Hai.
Pham Ba Hai had told RFA that the police read to him an order prohibiting him from leaving his house.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said these actions were aimed at preventing them from meeting Bielefeldt.
“Hanoi is exposing in a back-handed way just how bad their record is in violating freedom of religion and belief. This is hardly appropriate behavior by a government that has proclaimed itself as proud to be sitting as a member on the UN Human Rights Committee," he said.
The U.N. envoy however managed to meet with the leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Thich Quang Do, at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City where he has been under effective house arrest since 2003, the Paris-based group Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said in a statement.
UBCV Deputy leader Thich Nhu Dat and Le Cong Cau, head of the UBCVs Buddhist Youth Movement, traveled from Hue, the capital of North Central Coast province of Thua Thien-Hue, to join the meeting.
VCHR President Vo Van Ai deplored the Vietnamese government’s “impediments” to the U.N. envoy’s mission, saying that at least Bielefeldt “was able to witness Vietnam’s repressive religious policies first-hand.”
“In 1998, after the last UN religious rapporteur visited Vietnam, Hanoi said it would never again ‘accept any individuals or organizations coming to investigate religious freedom or human rights,’” Ai said. “This time they allowed the visit, but intimidated religious groups and restricted Mr. Bielefeldt's access.”
In the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Bielefeldt met with various government officials and local authorities involved in freedom of religion issues, and with representatives of recognized and unrecognized religious communities, as well as with civil society organizations and the U.N.
The Special Rapporteur will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2015.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.