Vietnam has told the U.N. Human Rights Council this week that ensuring human rights is its “top priority” and denied it was arresting rights defenders, while NGOs told the panel that communist authorities in Hanoi has mounted an “unprecedented political crackdown” since 2017 that has restricted key freedoms.
The Geneva-based council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of developments since the body last took up Vietnam five years ago received statements from the government and from groups of “stakeholders” – NGOS that focus on religious, political and media freedom in the country of 95 million people
Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Le Hoai Trung told the council that Vietnam implemented 175 of 182 recommendations made at the last Universal Periodic Review in 2014, and required time to put other promises into practice.
"Vietnam gives top priority to strengthen the rule of law state, improve the system of laws, institutions and policies to better ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms for the people," Trung told the panel.
Vietnam would "continue to ensure freedom of the press and publication and the right to information access,” Trung said. He sidestepped domestic and international criticism of draconian new press and internet laws while touting fast-growing internet in the country, which he said had 58 million active Facebook accounts.
NGO members of the Vietnam Working Group, however, differed sharply with Hanoi, and called for pressure on Vietnam to reverse a sharp crackdown on rights defenders that began in 2017.
“Despite accepting 182 recommendations of the 227 put forward in the 2014 UPR cycle, the Vietnamese government has increasingly restricted freedom of expression, freedom of information, and freedom of assembly,” the pro-democracy group Viet Tan said in a statement prior to the opening of the review in Geneva on Tuesday.
“Vietnamese authorities launched an unprecedented political crackdown in 2017, imprisoning or exiling more than 25 bloggers and peaceful activists,” said the statement.
'Severe crackdown' since 2017
Viet Tan and other NGOs criticized Vietnam’s cyber security law that took effect on Jan. 1 and requires foreign internet companies to store user data inside Vietnam, “providing authorities with further reasons to arrest people under the guise of ‘national security.’”
Vietnam’s formal submission to the council also depicted a different situation than that experienced by rights defenders, democracy activists, bloggers and religious groups
“The respect for, and protection and promotion of human rights have been consistently mainstreamed in Vietnam’s socio-economic development strategies and policies,” stated a document submitted to the U.N. for the five-year review.
“Since the previous review, Vietnam has made great efforts to improve its law, institutions, and policies on human rights, providing a solid framework that has yielded encouraging achievements in practice.”
The NGO statement to the panel–submitted last July by Viet Tan, Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture, Bau Bi Tuong Than Association, the Brotherhood for Democracy Lawyers Rights Watch Canada, Reporters Without Borders and the Viet Labor Movement—differed with the government.
“Since 2014, the Vietnamese government has severely restricted basic freedoms of expression and information. We are particularly concerned about the severe crackdown on journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders over the past two years,” said the NGO submission to the panel.
The hearing in Geneva came several weeks after a court in Da Nang threw out an appeal by Vietnamese activist Nguyen Trung Truc, a member of the online Brotherhood for Democracy advocacy group, against his 12-year jail sentence for activities “aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” under Article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code.
The Brotherhood for Democracy’s president Nguyen Trung Ton, former president Pham Van Troi, and deputy head of the group’s operations in Southern Vietnam Truong Minh Duc, were arrested along with fellow member Nguyen Bac Truyen on July 30, 2017 by Vietnamese security officers because of their ties to the group and subsequently charged under Article 79.
200 political prisoners
Nguyen Kim Binh of the Vietnam Human Rights Network said in December that Vietnam was detaining more than 200 political prisoners—surpassing figures tallied by Western human rights NGOs.
This figure includes the nearly 130 people convicted for participating in protests as of November 2018, receiving sentences of up to five years in prison.
They were among thousands who took to the streets in rare demonstrations in several cities in June to protest the draft Law on Cybersecurity and government plans to grant long-term leases for foreign companies operating in special economic zones.
Nguyen Thanh Son, a senior official in Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, told the panel that “Vietnam has no so-called increase of arrests and condemnation of human rights defenders."
U.N. Human Rights Council documents on Vietnam, however, record mounting concern over recent years about arrests of rights defenders.
“In October 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about a growing trend in arbitrary arrests and detentions, intimidation, harassment and attacks against human rights defenders,” said the report.
“In July 2017, the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Vietnamese authorities to immediately release all those who had been detained in connection with the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, and to amend broad and ill-defined laws that were used — under the pretext of national security — to crack down on dissent,” it said.
In April of last year, meanwhile, other U.N. officials “urged the authorities not to muzzle dissenting voices or stifle the people’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association in violation of the country’s obligations under international human rights law.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.