On November 20, 2019, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, a Vietnamese Catholic priest, posted on his Facebook page that he was not allowed to leave Vietnam to go to Japan to meet with the Pope during the papal visit to Asia. The immigration police gave Father Thuc a document explaining the reason why the government did not allow him to travel abroad. It stated that the priest was banned from leaving Vietnam because the authorities believed they were preventing possible crimes against “national security and public order” according to Article 21, Section 6 of Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. This decree was issued (link in Vietnamese) by Vietnam’s executive branch on August 17, 2007.
This was not the first time Father Thuc was prevented from traveling overseas. About two years ago, he was also blocked from traveling to Taiwan to attend meetings with Taiwanese civil society organizations regarding an environmental disaster involving a Taiwan enterprise, the Formosa Plastics Corporation. In one of Vietnam’s four central coastal provinces, Father Thuc had helped some of the victims of the Formosa incident voice their concerns over a legal fight and the aftermath of the disastrous environmental situation.
The case of Father Thuc again demonstrates how the Vietnamese government bans human rights activists from traveling in order to stop them from participating in international advocacy efforts. The Vietnamese authorities have confiscated the passports of more than 100 Vietnamese activists, banning them from traveling by citing the same legal section: Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. Activists are deemed by police as a threat to Vietnam’s national security and public order when they go abroad.
This incident also explains why we seldom see activists from Vietnam taking part in international advocacy for human rights in Vietnam. And even when activists do travel, they may not want to expose themselves publicly during advocacy events for Vietnam’s human rights because they could lose their passports upon returning home. Dinh Thao, an environmental and human rights activist, had her passport confiscated after being detained for several hours by police after returning to Vietnam this month. In the last three years, she traveled the world publicly advocating for human rights in Vietnam, and the confiscation of her passport was the price she had to pay for her actions.
The story of Dinh Thao is the same dilemma that almost all Vietnamese activists have had to deal with in the past five or six years. If they travel abroad and publicly advocate for human rights in Vietnam, they face the possibility of being blocked from traveling again after they return to Vietnam. When Vietnam underwent its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2014, activists accused the government of reprisals when it prevented activists from leaving the country to advocate for Vietnam’s human rights. Among them, Paulo Nguyen Ho Nhat Thanh, Pham Chi Dung, and Nguyen Bac Truyen were not allowed to depart the country to go to Geneva, Switzerland in January and February 2014 when their passports were confiscated. Pham Le Vuong Cac was also detained and had his passport confiscated in August 2014 when he returned to Vietnam after attending the UPR in Geneva. During the last UPR in 2019, Nguyen Thi Kim Khanh, wife of political prisoner Truong Minh Duc, participated in advocacy activities to raise her husband’s case in Europe and was detained for five hours upon her arrival in Vietnam. The police also took her passport without any judicial oversight, stating it was for national security.
Without their passports, these activists are prevented from traveling abroad and if they leave the country without it, they risk being considered illegal immigrants or worse, being accused of taking part in human trafficking schemes.
The ban on activists traveling overseas is illegal, and it also directly violates Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution. Article 23 of the Constitution guarantees that “citizens shall enjoy the freedom of movement and of residence within the country; and can freely travel abroad and return home from abroad.” By issuing governmental decrees like Decree 136/2007/ND-CP in 2007, the Vietnamese government has violated the rights of its citizens.
These decrees were not introduced, debated, and passed by the legislative branch but were executive orders whose constitutionality should ideally be decided by a judicial review. Sadly, Vietnam’s court system is not independent, and there is no constitutional court in the country. The government is able to issue unconstitutional decrees to suppress people’s rights without having any form of checks and balances.
The right of movement has met the same fate as the right for peaceful assembly: both of these rights have been violated by governmental decrees with the people having no means at all to fight back. In Vietnam, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee has the right to exercise the power to interpret the law, including constitutional law. This is the committee that can decide whether a law or a decree is constitutional. Unfortunately, the Standing Committee has never exercised that power.
The government also does not notify activists when it puts their names on a “no travel ban” list, and some of them only find out upon arrival at the airport, as was the case of Father Thuc. Some people, such as Dinh Thao, had their passports confiscated by the police immediately after they returned to Vietnam from overseas.
And yet, when the authorities infringe upon these activists’ right of movement, the police do not even follow the prescriptions as stated in Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. Article 22, Section 1(d) of this decree states that if a person is prevented from traveling because he or she is suspected to be a threat to national security or public order, such a decision to ban travel must be issued by the minister of the Ministry of Public Security – the head of the national police. In reality, none of the documents banning activists from traveling are signed by the minister. In the latest case of Father Thuc, the decision was signed by an immigration police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Phan Huan.
Human rights activists in Vietnam face blatant violations of their rights by the government daily as reprisals for their work, but the government cannot stop the democracy movement from expanding. The activist community continues to grow and they willingly face harassment and imprisonment. In recent years, Vietnam has arrested more people for political dissent and handed down harsher sentences. Posting on Facebook with information that the government dislikes may land a person in jail for a decade, as we saw earlier this month. But at the same time, more people are willing to write and expose corruption and official wrongdoing in Vietnam. This is a time for political change and Vietnamese citizens want to be a part of this change. They are increasingly daring to face the consequences.
In all of the human rights dialogue that the West participates in with Vietnam, putting an end to the travel ban should be top priority. If that happens, then the world will be able to hear Vietnamese activists express their struggles on the international stage. The advocacy to improve the human rights situation in Vietnam should start with eliminating the travel ban now.