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Human Rights

World Report On The Situation Of Human Rights Defenders: UN Expert Urges Vietnam To Stop Criminalize Activists

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Photo courtesy: CIVICUS

This week, the office of UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, released the first global survey on the situation of human rights defenders in 12 years, since the landmark Global Survey conducted in 2006 by the then UN Special Representative Hina Jilani.

Regarding the situation in Vietnam, the report states:

“Human rights defenders are physically attacked, criminalized, given long sentences, held in detention without trial, and tortured and subject to degrading treatment while imprisoned. The government retains strict control over the media, restricts the registration and activities of civil society organizations, and suppresses peaceful assemblies.”

The report noted that while Vietnam guarantees all citizens their human rights, in practice, several law decrees are regularly applied to restrict the rights of human rights defenders.

Citizens do not enjoy the right to a fair trial and to due process. Arbitrary detention is frequently used. The government tries to silence human rights defenders and bloggers, including through physical attacks, torture, criminalization, solitary confinement and degrading treatment in detention. The government exercises strict control on the media and the work of journalists. It takes harsh action against peaceful protests.

There are more than 100 political prisoners in Viet Nam, some serving lengthy prison sentences for the legitimate exercise of their rights. The right to fair trial and due process is not respected. Human rights defenders who face particularly high risks are those who criticize the government, including journalists, bloggers, labor rights defenders, and land and environmental rights defenders.

While Vietnam is party to most core international human rights treaties, the report pointed out that the country “has neither accepted any treaty-based individual complaints procedures nor treaty-based inquiry procedures.” Moreover, it also noted that Vietnam has yet to accede to the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture (CAT-OP), the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming to the abolition of the death penalty (CCPR-OP2-DP).

In 2018 alone, the report stated that the “2016 Law on Belief and Religion that came into effect in 2018 imposes strict registration requirements and enables state interference into the activities and internal affairs of religious groups. It provides the authorities with discretion to penalize unsanctioned religious activity. It includes a clause prohibiting religious practices that damage ‘the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order and social morale’ (Article 5).”

The Penal Code which was amended in 2015 and came into effect in 2018, is found by the Special Rapporteur to be regularly applied against human rights defenders, in particular, “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration (Article 109, previously Article 79 in the 1999 Penal Code); undermining 333 national unity policy (Article 116, previously 87); conducting propaganda against the State (Article 117, previously 88); disrupting security (Article 118, previously 89); causing public disorder (Article 318, previously 245) and abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State (Article 331, previously 258).”

The report also was alarmed by the provision of the newly amended Penal Code that would make defense lawyers liable for “not reporting some types of serious crimes committed by their client.”

On the issue of government’s regulating people’s use of the internet, Decree No. 72/2013/ND-CP of July 15, 2013, on the management, provision and use of internet services and online information, as well as Decree No. 174/2013/ND-CP of November 13, 2013 on penalties for administrative violations against regulations on post and telecommunications, information technology and radio frequency, were mentioned in the report to demonstrate how freedom of expression and freedom to access the internet are further curtailed in Vietnam.

The report raised serious concerns over the new Cybersecurity Law passed in June 2018, requiring “global technology firms such as Facebook and Google to store ‘important’ personal data in Viet Nam, open local offices, remove offensive content upon the request of the government. It also allows the government to conduct an audit of their information systems.”

The Special Rapporteur took note that “there are no laws, policies, or practices that protect the rights of human rights defenders,” and described various cases of human rights defenders being harassed, physically assaulted, arbitrarily arrested and detained, unfairly tried and imprisoned. From the April 2018 trial of the Brotherhood of Democracy to the harsh and unfair sentences given in the cases of Tran Kim And, Le Thanh Tung, Luu Van Vinh, Nguyen Van Hoa, Nguyen Viet Dung, and Le Dinh Luong, they were all mentioned with specific details in the report.

The prison conditions of Mother Mushroom and Tran Thi Nga, as well as the attack on human rights defenders and blogger Pham Doan Trang in August 2018, were used as examples for the treatment of women HRDs in Vietnam.

In regards to government’s suppression on demonstrations and disperses public assemblies, the report wrote: “When people gathered in 2016 to demonstrate against the Formosa company after the waste spill, the authorities used tear gas and excessive force to disperse the crowd. In June 2018, when thousands of people gathered in different places to protest a proposal to allow foreign firms to have 99-year leases in new special economic zones. The police detained protesters and subject some to beatings before releasing them.”

The report also noted that during the past 12 years, the office of the Special Rapporteur had sent numerous communications to the government of Vietnam with regards to the dire conditions of human rights defenders in the country, but most of them did not receive a reply.

The Special Rapporteur urges the government to “cease the criminalization of human rights defenders and to release all who have been detained and imprisoned for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, and association.

He also “urges the government to ensure that the detention of prisoners adheres to the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) and that everyone enjoys the right to a fair trial and due process. He calls for the government to review, amend and/or repeal laws that restrict the rights of human rights defenders and to introduce legislation, policies and administrative practices that protect human rights defenders. He recommends that the government become party to the other core human rights treaties and to establish a national human rights institution that is fully compliant with the Paris Principles.”

The complete World Report can be accessed here.

Human Trafficking

Q&A: What You Should Know About The Human Trafficking Situation In Vietnam

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Photo credit: VnExpress/Nguyen Phuoc Vu (background photo), U.S. Department of State (screenshot photo). Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

On July 1, 2021, the U.S. Department of State released its annual global report on human trafficking. The 2021 Trafficking in Persons report ranked Vietnam as a “Tier 2 Watch List” [1] for the third consecutive year.

According to the placement guiding [2], governments that fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking are placed on “Tier 1.” In contrast, countries that fail to meet minimum standards but make a significant effort to comply are ranked as “Tier 2.” 

However, these Tier 2 countries also risk being placed on a “Tier 3 Watch List” if they do not take “concrete actions” to combat the increasing number of human trafficking victims or if they fail “to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year.” 

Without a further genuine effort to improve the current situation, Vietnam could be downgraded to “Tier 3,” which might lead [3] to restrictions on financial assistance from the United States, the freezing of officials’ assets, and restrictions on immigration.

Human trafficking map, East Asia & Pacific region. Source: U.S. Department of State.

What is Vietnam’s current situation?

In Vietnam’s case, the State Department declares that the Vietnamese government “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”

The report acknowledges considerable efforts taken by Vietnam to eliminate human trafficking, including ramping up prosecutions against human traffickers, passing legal revisions to terminate hefty brokerage fees. Brokerage fees will make workers fall victim to debt bondage, and later they would be susceptible to forced labor. 

It also notices that Vietnam has enhanced worker protections, strengthened law enforcement, increased financial budgets to assist victims of trafficking, provided protection services for identified victims, and implemented extensive awareness programs in vulnerable ethnic communities.

Nevertheless, the country has not demonstrated sufficient effort regarding its anti-trafficking protocols, given the impact of Covid-19 on the overall capacity to combat illegal human trading activities, compared to the previous period. Furthermore, the report states that Vietnam has also fallen short on systematically identifying victims of trafficking, which results in “some victims [being] penalized for unlawful acts [that] traffickers [compel] them to commit.”

Who are the primary victims and offenders of trafficking activities?

The Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a non-profit charity that rescues and helps the victims of human trafficking in Vietnam, stated in a study [4] that over 60 percent of victims and traffickers come from ethnic minority groups, such as Hmong or Thai. Some of Vietnam’s northern border provinces, in which diverse groups of ethnic people dominate, witness the highest rates of illegal trafficking and border crossings.

According to the charity’s latest analysis [5], between 2012 and 2020, Hmong people accounted for over 32 percent of the total victims and 33 percent of the total traffickers, while only making up 1.4 percent of the country’s population.

Also, the traffickers, as well as their victims, share poor economic and educational backgrounds. Most of the prosecuted traffickers, around 80 percent, are illiterate or did not finish high school.

The lack of general knowledge about laws and human rights, coupled with grinding poverty, proves to be the main reason these people take up [6] trafficking or recruitment to generate extra income and “escaping” poverty.

At the same time, people between 19 to 25 years old are the most vulnerable to these illicit activities, while children under 16 account for 42 percent of the total number of trafficked victims. Based on gender, all of the 199 trafficked victims recorded by Blue Dragon were females. Meanwhile, male traffickers comprise nearly 60 percent of total prosecuted offenders.

In a majority of cases, the traffickers have close relationships with the victims. They could be their friends, family members, relatives, neighbors, or acquaintances.

Source: Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. Graphic by South China Morning Post.

What are the common forms of trafficking?

Following the data compiled by the Blue Dragon Foundation, forced marriage and domestic servitude accounted for the majority of all prosecuted cases. The victims, mostly women, are often lured and misled by false promises of well-paid job opportunities in foreign countries, but they are eventually forced into marriage with Chinese men.

Other forms of human trafficking, which include [7] forced labor and commercial sex, are also ubiquitous.

Vietnamese workers, especially under labor export programs, are subject to forced labor when they cannot pay off their debts to their recruitment company. Meanwhile, some Vietnamese female workers travel to other Asian countries for brokered jobs [8] as hostesses in massage parlors, karaoke bars, or restaurants.

What are Vietnam’s prosecution laws against trafficking?

Overall, the Vietnamese government has displayed visible efforts in reinforcing its existing legal framework against human trafficking. The current anti-trafficking legislation [9] of Vietnam includes:

  • Article 150 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes labor trafficking and sex trafficking of adults. Offenders face up to 10 years of imprisonment and up to 100 million dong (US$4,330) in fines.
  • Article 151 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes labor trafficking and sex trafficking of children under 16. Offenders face up to 12 years of imprisonment and up to 200 million dong fines.

Despite being regarded as “sufficiently stringent” in the State Department’s report, current prosecution laws against trafficking in Vietnam still contain certain loopholes.

For example, the application of Article 150 to cases involving children between the ages of 16 and 17 remains ambiguous, leading them to be treated as adults. Therefore, the article does not fully constitute all forms of child trafficking.

Other notable shortcomings include the lack of law enforcement regarding domestic trafficking and forced labor, especially with male victims, and the insufficient training of law enforcement officers in handling such cases. These are some limitations that could hinder the country’s progress towards eliminating labor exploitation and the illegal activities of human trafficking.

What improvements could be made by Vietnam?

The State Department’s report proposed prioritized recommendations that the Vietnamese government could implement to improve the situation. 

These recommendations focus on:

  1. Bolstering collaboration with NGOs and civil society;
  2. Amending existing loopholes;
  3. Training law enforcement officials in domestic trafficking cases;
  4. Implementing policies;
  5. Increasing national funding for provincial-level authorities to assist victims of trafficking; and
  6. Inviting independent bodies to verify the government has terminated forced labor in rehabilitation centers.

Bibliography:

  1. Office To Monitor And Combat Trafficking In Persons. (2021, July 1). 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: Vietnam. United States Department of State. https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/vietnam/
  2. Office To Monitor And Combat Trafficking In Persons. (2021a, July 1). 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. United States Department of State. https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/
  3. Nguyen Dinh Thang. (2021, July 4). Buôn người: Việt Nam ở sát bờ vực chế tài theo luật Hoa Kỳ. Mach Song Media. https://machsongmedia.org/vietnam/chong-buon-nguoi/1727-buon-nguoi-viet-nam-o-sat-bo-vuc-che-tai-theo-luat-hoa-ky.html
  4. Sen, N. (2021, July 8). Young members of ethnic minority groups most at risk in Vietnam-China human trafficking trade: report. SCMP. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3140227/young-members-ethnic-minority-groups-most-risk-vietnam-china
  5. Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. (2021, July). Human Trafficking & Traffickers in Vietnam. Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. https://www.bluedragon.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Profile-of-trafficking-in-Vietnam.pdf
  6. Ibid., [4]
  7. Ibid., [1]
  8. RFA. (2021b, July 1). Việt Nam tiếp tục nằm trong danh sách cần phải theo dõi về tình trạng buôn người trong báo cáo của Bộ Ngoại giao Mỹ. Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/human-trafficking-report-vn-stay-in-watch-list-tier-2-07012021203901.html
  9. Ibid., [1]

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Death Penalty

A Spark Of Hope For Ho Duy Hai’s Family As New Alibi Emerges

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Photo credit (background): Canva. Photo credit (from left to right): Ho Duy Hai’s family, Nguyen Lan Thang. Graphic design: The Vietnamese Magazine

On June 24, 2021, Attorney Tran Hong Phong, the lawyer for Ho Duy Hai and his family in their petition for his wrongful death penalty case, published a letter on his Facebook account, providing a new alibi regarding the case. Five lawyers (including Phong), two journalists working for a law newspaper, and Ho Duy Hai’s family jointly signed the letter.

The letter, which had been previously sent to the Procurator of Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam and the Vietnamese authorities, provides convincing proof [1] to demonstrate that Ho Duy Hai was not the murderer of two post office workers in Long An Province in 2008.

Alternatively, the new evidence shows that on the evening of January 13, 2008, Ho Duy Hai actually did not go to Cau Voi Post Office, where the murder took place, but rather attended the funeral of Ho Chi, also known as Tu Lan, a neighbor who lived just 500 meters from Hai’s house.

Furthermore, the new evidence also shows that Ho Duy Hai was at the funeral from 7:50 pm until 9 pm, which coincides with the time the Long An Police investigative agency alleged he had entered the Cau Voi Post Office, at around 7:30 pm, to murder the two victims at around 8:30 pm allegedly. Seven witnesses, who also attended the funeral, including the deceased’s wife, have confirmed this fact.[2]

Ho Duy Hai received a death penalty for his convictions of homicide and robbery, despite “serious procedural shortcomings”[3] and violations of the defendant’s right to a fair trial. 

This controversial and invalid case has set his family and their attorney on a decade-long journey [4] of calling for the suspension of his execution. They finally reached a cassation trial [5] in 2020, but Ho Duy Hai was once again declared guilty of the crimes and sentenced to death.[6]

Although the presumption of innocence has been recognized [7] in its 2015 Criminal Procedures Code, Vietnam has fallen short of actually practicing this principle in its criminal proceedings. Quite commonly, the number of cases and the speed at which a case must be solved dwarf the importance of proper due process to uphold a fair and just trial. 

A local lawyer explained [8] that investigative agencies could deploy “professional” methods to extract forced confessions from people since these agencies “often hold prejudices” against the accused. Also, earlier this month, the People’s Court of Dak Song District, in Dak Nong Province, held [9] nearly 60 “pretend” trials, to meet its quota for a local judge to be reappointed, without any real defendants or victims.

However, the new evidence provided by his attorney might prove that Ho Duy Hai was wrongfully convicted, which would be a spark of hope for both the defendant and his family as the possibility of retrial could be high.

To strengthen the validity of the new proof, Attorney Phong confirmed that all seven witnesses “voluntarily provided the information and confirmation letters to affirm that their testimonies are true and vowed to take full responsibility under the law […].” 

In their letter, the attorney and the signees demanded Vietnamese government officials expeditiously verify the evidence, review the cassation decision, release defendant Ho Duy Hai on bail while awaiting verification; and review and resolve their previous petitions and demands.

The case of Ho Duy Hai has drawn wide attention from both national and international audiences, as he was convicted of murder and later sentenced to death via an opaque and unfair trial.

Bibliography:

[1] RFA. (2021, June 25). Vụ án Hồ Duy Hải: Luật sư cung cấp bằng chứng ngoại phạm mới. Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/ho-duy-hai-case-lawyer-provides-new-proof-06252021081856.html

[2] HCMC Reporters. (2021, June 25). Vụ án tử tù Hồ Duy Hải: Luật sư cung cấp tình tiết bất ngờ. Dân Việt. https://danviet.vn/vu-an-tu-tu-ho-duy-hai-luat-su-cung-cap-tinh-tiet-bat-ngo-2021062515064789.htm

[3] Will, N. (2019, December 3). After Decade of Petitions, Vietnam to Re-consider Case of Death Row Inmate Ho Duy Hai. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2019/12/after-decade-of-petitions/

[4] Vi, T. Q. (2019, September 29). Wrongful Death Penalty Cases And The Families That The Inmates Left Behind. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2019/09/wrongful-death-penalty-cases-and-the-families-that-the-inmates-left-behind/

[5] Thereporter. (2020a, May 7). Ho Duy Hai’s Cassation Trial. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2020/05/ho-duy-hais-cassation-trial/

[6] Thereporter. (2020b, May 9). Ho Duy Hai’s Case Reaffirmed, Sentenced to Death Again. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2020/05/ho-duy-hais-case-reaffirmed-sentenced-to-death-again/

[7] V.L.L.F. (2018, June 1). Legal experts discuss presumption of innocence, due process principles in criminal proceedings. Vietnam Law and Legal Forum. https://vietnamlawmagazine.vn/legal-experts-discuss-presumption-of-innocence-due-process-principles-in-criminal-proceedings-6244.html

[8] Thi, D. (2021, June 25). Liệu có tái thẩm vụ án Hồ Duy Hải với chứng cứ ngoại phạm mới? Đài Á Châu Tự Do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/will-the-ho-duy-hai-case-be-retrial-with-new-alibi-dt-06252021114054.html

[9] Duong, D. (2021, June 6). Tòa huyện lập gần 60 vụ án “ảo” để. . . một thẩm phán được bổ nhiệm lại? Dan Tri. https://dantri.com.vn/xa-hoi/toa-huyen-lap-gan-60-vu-an-ao-de-mot-tham-phan-duoc-bo-nhiem-lai-20210606162322706.htm

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Internet Freedom

Vietnam: The New Code Of Conduct On Social Media Is Not Legally Binding

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Decision 847 from the MIC. Photo: Luat Vietnam, The Independent. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

On June 17, 2021, Reuters reported that Vietnam announced a national code of conduct for social media. This new code would be the national guidelines on social media behavior in Vietnam, where users are encouraged to post positive content about the country. There are certain prohibitions for social media users and companies, requiring that social media providers in Vietnam follow Vietnamese law when “requested by authorities to remove content from their platforms.” 

This national code of conduct is Decision 847/QĐ-BTTTT (Decision 847), and it was issued by the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC).

There are specific prohibitions throughout this decision, and it also lists the individuals and entities that are subject to the regulations. Yet, at the same time, the extent to which it is a legally binding document and how the government will enforce it is still ambiguous. 

Nevertheless, we can safely conclude that right now, under Vietnamese law, Decision 847 is NOT a legally binding document.

Why is it not legally binding?

This so-called national code of conduct on social media was issued as a decision from the minister of the MIC. These kinds of decisions in Vietnam are not legally binding documents under the Law on Promulgation of Legislative Documents 2015

Under its Article 3.1, the Law on Promulgation of Legislative Documents 2015 requires that legally binding documents should be “general rules of conduct, commonly binding, and applied repeatedly to agencies, organizations and individuals nationwide or within a certain administrative division, promulgated by the regulatory agencies and competent persons in this Law, the implementation of which is ensured by the State.” 

A minister of any ministry is deemed incompetent to promulgate legal documents if he or she issues only a decision, such as this Decision 847. Only a circular or a joint circular issued by a minister will be deemed legally binding documents. Therefore, Decision 847 cannot be treated as a legally binding document under Vietnamese law. 

Decision 847 cannot regulate social media users and providers.

Technically, only binding legal documents can regulate its subjects, but Decision 847 is quite ambiguous. 

Article 2 of Decision 847 clearly defines the subjects that are being regulated, including official departments, state employees and officials who use social media. It also states that organizations and individuals who use social media and social media providers are all subjected to its regulations.

Yet, under Article 8, which sets the implementation of Decision 847, it states, “the social users and companies are encouraged to fully execute the content of this decision and propagandize it to other organizations and individuals who are also on social media.” 

If Decision 847 only encourages its subjects to follow and propagandize it, it completely defeats the purpose of regulating users and companies on social media in Vietnam. Moreover, the vagueness and ambiguity of this decision reaffirm that it should not be a legally binding government document.

Does the MIC want to regulate all the people, companies, and other governmental agencies in Vietnam with Decision 847? 

Typically, a decision from a minister would only affect his or her ministry. However, in developing this national code of conduct on social media, is it the intent of the minister of MIC to instruct and direct how citizens and other government departments should act on social media according to his standards of positivity and morality? Is it his or the government’s duty to coach citizens on behaving in our everyday life? 

Who will regulate the ethical and cultural values for the entire Vietnam? This country already lacks an independent court system, and this decision does not have any judicial oversight. So who will get to decide what ethics and culture are if Decision 847 is enforced? Is it the government’s decision to dictate good ethics, and what is a positive culture for Vietnam on social media? What will be the meaning of our freedom of expression if we actually behave and live like this?

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