“How do you explain or assess that Vietnam is ranked 175 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontiers’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index?”
The question from Mr. Fathalla, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, succinctly summed up Vietnam’s human rights situation, especially when it came to those rights involving the people’s freedom of expression.
Between March 11 and 12, 2019 and during their 125th session, the Human Rights Committee completed their review of Vietnam’s compliance and implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Vietnam was 13 years overdue in submitting its third report for the review, which was due in August 2004. As a result, there was a 15-year-gap between the last review and this recent one.
Nevertheless, the questions from the Committee during the two-day-proceeding painted an accurate, but very worrying picture of the human rights situation in the country right now.
The Committee questioned specific contents of the new 2018 Cybersecurity Law and the 2016 Press Law regarding their possible violations of Article 19 of the ICCPR on freedom of expression.
There was scrutiny over the independence of the judiciary in Vietnam where all judges seemed to be members of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Lawyers were disbarred for being human rights defenders themselves, or just by merely took on politically sensitive cases, such as those involved police brutality and torture committed by the state’s officials.
The most recently amended Penal Code has taken a step further in limiting and curtailing the practice of law when it requires lawyers to make mandatory reports on their clients in a few specific instances – for example when it involves a “national security” crime – or risk being prosecuted themselves.
At the same time, the penal code sections relating to “national security” are used almost exclusively against human rights defenders and political dissidents in Vietnam. As such, the mandatory report requirement seems to especially deny this group of people their right to a fair trial with competent legal assistance.
There were also concerns from the Committee over the fact that police brutality had become more prevalent in recent years due to impunity.
Prison conditions in general, and especially the treatment of human rights defenders in prison, were also brought up repeatedly during the proceeding, where the Committee rejected Vietnam’s attempt to brush off the issue by offering evidence of some handful visits to prisons by foreign embassies in recent years.
The Committee’s members instead referred to the UN’s Committee Against Torture’s recommendations after the review of Vietnam under the Convention in November 2018, where numerous alarming issues regarding the poor conditions in Vietnam’s prisons were addressed, such as the use of shackle and solitary confinement.
Vietnam was named as one of the world’s top executioners in 2016 by an Amnesty International’s report on the death penalty, after the Ministry of Public Security released some rare statistics in February 2017, stating that 429 prisoners were executed between August 8, 2013, and June 30, 2016, at an average rate of 147 executions per year.
At the review, facts involved the wrongful convictions involving two death-row inmates, Ho Duy Hai and Le Van Manh, were also addressed in details by members of the Committee.
The rights of indigenous people in Vietnam also took center after reports on their religious persecution and forced statelessness were submitted to the Committee in advance by NGOs working on these issues. Among them were Boat People SOS, Viet Nam Coalition Against Torture (VN-CAT), Council of Indigenous Peoples in Today’s Viet Nam (CIP-TVN), The Advocates for Human Rights and Tai Studies Center, Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, and Hmong United for Justice.
The UN received close to thirty shadow reports from civil society organizations before the review, which included both independent groups and NGOs that have an affiliation with the Vietnamese government.
The Human Rights Committee is expected to issue their concluding observations in the coming months.