Earlier this year, on February 22, 2021, the government of Vietnam announced its candidacy to join the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Claiming that it had been “endorsed as the ASEAN candidate,” the Vietnamese government also seemed to be using the early success of its COVID-19 response as the crux of its bid for reelection.
In fact, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, who was foreign minister at that time, ignorantly and inconceivably claimed that “the best way to ensure that each and every member of society can fully enjoy their human rights” was to keep people safe amidst the pandemic.
Much time has passed since then and after several spikes of COVID-19 cases in the country, compounded with the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) own signature brand of emergency measures, media cover-ups, and failure to provide proper welfare to its citizens, Vietnam’s early success regarding the virus revealed itself to be built on a foundation of sand. These actions also show us that as much as the Vietnamese government likes to spout hollow rhetoric about claiming to care about the rights and welfare of its citizens, this has never been the case.
Needless to say, several government critics, human rights advocates, and media organizations, both local and international, scoffed at Vietnam’s audacity.
A Link to the Past
This wasn’t the first time Vietnam had attempted to barter for a seat in the prestigious human rights council. In fact, it had tried, and even succeeded, in its membership bid back in 2013, when Vietnam was elected on November 12 of that year and, as reported by Human Rights Watch, tasked with the “obligation to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.’ ” Vietnam remained on the council from 2014-2016.
During the lead-up to its victory, the Vietnamese government promised that it would “respect and promote human rights by the concrete implementation of the country’s Constitution and laws.” Human Rights Watch also stated that Vietnam had signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Yet, much like today, there was a huge disparity between what the Vietnamese government said and what it actually did. In response to the blatant hypocrisy of the situation, several human rights groups called attention to the numerous violations committed by Vietnam, such as “increasing restrictions of freedom of expression and the growing number of dissidents sent to jail,” as reported by Voice of America (VOA).
The way Vietnam responded to these allegations is also hauntingly reminiscent to the present, with former Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Luong Thanh Nghi, unashamedly stating that “the government is confident Vietnam will gain membership on the council” and that “Vietnam has achieved many successes in recent years in ensuring human rights in all areas.”
Nghi was right about one thing at least. Despite the negative reception, the public pushback, the global outcry, and the presence of arguably the world’s brightest minds in terms of knowledge about international law and human rights, Vietnam was awarded a seat. And everyone else was left with a lingering bitter taste in their mouths.
A Look at the Present
In Vietnam’s current attempt to grab a second term in the UNHCR, more severe and plentiful accusations bar its path and the world has grown much more aware of the many transgressions the VCP routinely commits against Vietnamese citizens. Groups, such as CIVICUS and the 88 Project, actively keep track of human rights developments in Vietnam and regularly release detailed and comprehensive reports for the public while media outlets, such as ourselves and our counterparts at the Luật Khoa, remain dedicated to updating Vietnamese about the issues plaguing their homeland, wherever they may live.
Several United Nations experts have also expressed their concern about Vietnam and have likewise called for the release of our co-founder, Pham Doan Trang who now faces imprisonment under trumped-up and dubious charges of whatever the VCP considers being “propaganda”. And despite all these and so much more, the VCP still has the gall to even consider reelection into the UNHCR to be a viable and attainable goal.
However, hopes and dreams are not enough to guarantee success, and what the VCP desires is still contingent on the ballots of the rest of the UN member states.
On December 9, 2021, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - a development arm of the United Nations tasked with assisting countries in reaching the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the year 2030 - released a short Q&A regarding Vietnam’s current adherence to the proper observation of human rights. This document, which may give us a tiny peek into the general sentiment of the UN regarding Vietnam’s prospects for reelection into the UNHRC, addresses three questions regarding this issue.
The three questions are as follows:
- Could you please share your assessment on Viet Nam’s implementation of human rights in the 2016-2021 period, especially in the pandemic context?
- Viet Nam was a member of the UN Human Rights Council in the 2014-2016 term and is now running for the 2023-2025 term. What is your assessment of Viet Nam’s participation in the UN's human rights mechanisms? What is the prospect of its membership in the coming time?
- How will the UN in general and UNDP in particular support Viet Nam in achieving the SDGs by 2030, with people being the center, the subject, and the goal of development?
Regarding the first query, the Q&A begins with the usual formalities of official documents by acknowledging Vietnam’s efforts for “[engaging] in a very wide range of human rights mechanisms over the period 2016-2020, from the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).” It then continues by stating that even though Vietnam has “achieved good progress in implementing recommendations related to economic, social, and cultural rights,” UN human rights bodies have raised several concerns about the country’s limitations to civil and political rights.
The Q&A also mentions that Vietnam has failed to establish an independent national human rights institution; the presence of which is essential in achieving SDG 16: “[promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, [providing] access to justice for all and [building] effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
For the second question, the Q&A response strangely skirts around the inquiry and avoids giving a direct answer. Instead, it congratulates Vietnam for its nomination and highlights the responsibilities that come with the prestige of holding a seat in the UNHRC. It also states that members of the UNHRC are “expected to demonstrate the highest standards of respect for human rights, both domestically and internationally.” Lastly, it provides very brief and general tasks that sitting members of the Council are expected to perform such as “[responding] to human rights issues as they arise around the world, [cooperating] fully with the Council’s mechanisms, and [offering] technical assistance and guidance…”
The response to the third question is your standard cut-and-paste answer in which the UNDP Resident Representative, Caitlin Wiesen, states that the “UNDP is proud to be a long-standing, trusted partner of the Government of Viet Nam” and that they would work to “provide technical assistance to the Government in its reporting to and implementation of different human rights instruments” and would also “ensure the participation of civil society and affected communities.” The UNDP’s reply ends with your typical reaffirmation and commitment to “deepening its partnership with the Government of Viet Nam for realizing its ambitions by 2030 for a sustainable, just, and people-centered future for all Vietnamese.”
A Glimpse into the Future
Peeling back the layers of formal writing present in UNDP’s Q&A about Vietnam reveals the undertone of the message itself as being somewhat distant and dismissive, perhaps in their attempt to remain neutral and unbiased.
However, looking at Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review itself, it is quickly observed that around ¾ of the document is dedicated to listing down recommendations that would improve the human rights situation in the country. With so much to work on, it would not be unreasonable to claim that the Vietnamese government’s efforts in working towards the SDGs and in improving the overall human rights in their country are severely lacking. A significant number of UN member states seem to feel the same way.
And yet, the Vietnamese government still opts to pursue reelection into the UNHRC. Whether they will win or not is unclear; even organizations like the UN are not infallible and its member states will vote according to what would be best for their countries, or their leaders.
But even if Vietnam should be granted a seat, this does not guarantee that the other member states will grant them the proper afforded respect; as with the Q&A document, only formalities would be observed but genuine respect and admiration would be hauntingly absent.
If elected, Vietnam would be the odd-man-out among a group of peers but this hardly seems to be an issue for the VCP. After all, all they seem to care about is the power, prestige, and position; their victory would be hollow and devoid of meaning, just like the empty calories of gold flakes on top of an expensive cut of steak.
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