After Hoàng Đức Bình’s 14-year sentence was affirmed by an appellate court in Vietnam on April 24, 2018, one of the state-owned newspapers, Người Lao Động (NLD), published a story about Bình’s case on the same day, explaining the government’s reasons behind his harsh sentence.
In one paragraph, NLD wrote:
“Taking advantage of the marine life environmental incident in the Central, and as the Vice-Chairman of Viet Labor Movement, Hoàng Đức Bình began to organize The Association of Fishermen in the Central with the intent to form an external organization, mobilizing forces, attracting Catholics, fishermen in the Central to join that organization; selecting ‘nucleus’ who could incite demonstration to disturb the peace and security.”
Not only international human rights laws protect the right of the people to form associations and organize protests, Vietnam repeatedly acknowledges and agrees to not infringe on these rights of its people in various international treaties and agreements. One of the more recent ones is the free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union (EU).
About two and a half years before Bình’s trial, in October 2015, Vietnam and the EU have agreed on the text concerning the terms of the FTA between them.
At the same time, EU and its member countries have repeatedly maintained, that they are “fully committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals into EU policies.”
One of EU’s commitments to implementing the 2030 Agenda is to include in their free trade agreements, rules on trade and sustainable development as well as a human rights clause.
In the case of the Vietnam-EU FTA, that language is under Chapter 15 of the agreement, entitles Trade and Sustainable Development.
Article 3, Paragraph 2, Sub-paragraph (a) of Chapter 15 states:
“Each Party reaffirms its commitments, in accordance with its obligations deriving from the membership of the ILO and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up, adopted by the International Labour Conference at its 86th Session in 1998, to respect, promote and effectively implement the principles concerning the fundamental rights at work, namely:
a) the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;”
The importance of this chapter and the human rights clause are also highlighted by the Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee for International Trade, Bernd Lange, during his visit to Hanoi in September 2017. That human rights and labor rights are at the center of the continued discussions about the FTA between Vietnam and EU.
Many could imply that the criminalization of Hoàng Đức Bình’s conduct for organizing people and forming an association of fishermen in the Central of Vietnam appears to be in direct violation of the Trade and Sustainable Development Chapter and the human rights clause of the Vietnam-EU FTA.
The European Parliament Think Tank assessed in February 2018, that the FTA with Vietnam “has been described as the most ambitious deal of its type ever concluded between the EU and a developing country. Not only will it eliminate over 99 % of customs duties on goods, but it will also open up Vietnamese services markets to EU companies and strengthen protection of EU investments in the country.”
They also opined that the Vietnam-EU FTA is estimated to boost Vietnam’s economy as much as 15 % of GDP, with Vietnamese exports to Europe growing by over one third.
The parties are hopeful that the FTA will be ratified by EU Parliament (and also by its member-states on issues involving investment) by the end of this year, or by 2019 at the latest.
However, the recent affirmation of Vietnam’s court regarding Hoàng Đức Bình’s 14-year sentence for organizing and participating in protests against Taiwan’s Formosa Hà Tĩnh Steel Corporation raises questions over the good faith of Hanoi in keeping up their end of the bargain when it comes to human rights and labor rights.
If Vietnamese government is sending people to prison with a very harsh sentence for exercising their freedom of association before the FTA is ratified, then what and how does EU plan to keep them in check once the dust is all settled?
Perhaps, this is a legitimate question for the EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue to provide the public with a more definitive answer later this year?