Under Watchful Eyes: How Vietnam Prevents Human Rights Defenders From Connecting With The United Nations

Under Watchful Eyes: How Vietnam Prevents Human Rights Defenders From Connecting With The United Nations
Five of the recently arrested and convicted Vietnamese prisoners of conscience. Left to right, Nguyen Thuy Hanh, Pham Doan Trang, Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Tu, Trinh Ba Phuong. Photos: Facebook Huynh Ngoc Chenh/ Thinh Nguyen/ AFP/ Facebook Trinh Ba Phuong. Background: The Wire. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

The duties of the United Nations are vast, varied, and diverse. These can range anywhere from providing relief and medical aid, to deploying peacekeeping forces in areas of conflict, and serving as a venue for arbitration to resolve existing tension between countries in conflict.

Added to these, one more responsibility that the UN undertakes is to oversee whether or not its member-states are observing and protecting the human rights of the people living in their respective countries. In a perfect world, the United Nations would be able to masterfully fulfill and accomplish all its duties and more. But sadly, this is not the case.

The United Nations suffers from a problem of scale. This means that, as an institution, the UN has grown so large that it cannot possibly, nor realistically, be up-to-date, or even aware, of every single issue happening in every single one of its member states. And even if it was, the organization is also limited by the number of resources available to it at any given time.

Dr. Davit Kirvalidze, the current advisor to the prime minister of Georgia and a candidate to be the next Director-General of the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, believes that the UN should work more closely with the private sector to “address its management deficiencies” in order to properly address the many issues the world is facing, such as hunger and malnutrition.

However, when it comes to issues involving the human rights situations of various places all over the world, the UN remains profoundly dependent on the information and testimonies provided by thousands of victims and human rights defenders who document abuse and violations.

After all, several honest and firsthand testimonies from those experiencing the problem itself tend to be more trustworthy than any report published by nations that are alleged to be committing abuses; these people are essential in bringing the reality on the ground to the attention of the UN.

It is for this reason that many countries with secrets to hide tend to make it extremely difficult for human rights defenders and victims to connect with the United Nations. It should come as no surprise that Vietnam falls into this group.

A study conducted by the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) asserts that Vietnam has a total of 41 reported cases of reprisal and is noted to be a frequent perpetrator of these against those who would attempt to engage and get in contact with the UN. The term “reprisal” in this report refers to cases of receiving threats or intimidation, investigation or prosecution, detention or imprisonment, defamation, physical attack, travel restrictions, harassment of family or friends, online harassment, or surveillance.

The study also claims that in the period between 2010-2019, the UN Reprisals Team only received additional information and updates from the state regarding 11 percent to 25 percent of Vietnam’s cases. This means that after the initial report was submitted to the UN, they received little to no news about the majority of Vietnam’s cases within this frame of time. Hence, it becomes reasonable to assume that no progress was made by the Vietnamese government in addressing these claims.

Vietnam is also shown in the study to be No. 3 globally in the list of countries with the highest number of reprisal cases. This is quite ironic given that Vietnam has recently applied for membership in the UN Human Rights Council.

Yet, this could only be just the tip of the iceberg. Janika Spannagel, the author of the above-mentioned study and a research fellow with the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, states that “the problem is usually much larger than what we can detect in the data.”

She writes that “human rights violations often happen in secrecy” and as such, we cannot really get a comprehensive nor a complete view of what the situation is actually like. She also states that some people might not even be aware of how to get in contact with the UN in the first place. Hence, Vietnam could have hundreds or even thousands of reprisal cases that the general public and the international community might never hear about.

This is not a new development in Vietnam. In fact, a 2015 Q&A by Civil Rights Defenders (CRD), an international human rights organization based in Stockholm, claims that “between 70 to 100 human rights defenders and activists in Vietnam face[d] government-imposed domestic and international travel restrictions with no legitimate justification.” CRD also states that the purpose of these restrictions was to prevent these people from engaging in human rights activities and to hinder their participation and association with regional and international human rights partners.

The Q&A also lists several instances which illustrate how Vietnamese activists’ right to freedom of movement is violated by their government.

These include:

  1. passport confiscation when these activists return from abroad or when they’re about to board a flight
  2. rejecting or ignoring applications for new passports or for renewal
  3. being physically prevented from boarding flights on the basis of “national security”
  4. being harassed and barred by public security agents to stop them from leaving their homes to meet with human rights groups, journalists, diplomats, and other activists
  5. being forcibly detained and interrogated after returning from overseas travel
  6. and being forced into exile

Many of these violations are also mentioned in the ISHR study.

For more concrete examples of these reprisals in action, we can look at the cases of Dinh Thi Phuong Thao and  Truong Thi Ha, two activists who returned to Vietnam in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Their situations are discussed in greater detail in the Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, released on September 25, 2020.

Dinh Thi Phuong Thao. Photo: The 88 Project.

According to these reports, Dinh Thi Phuong Thao was a human rights defender and pro-democracy activist, who had been involved with VOICE, a Vietnamese civil society organization.

Thao left Vietnam in 2016 but continued to work for the promotion of human rights in Vietnam by working with various UN human rights mechanisms. However, when she returned in 2019, she was apprehended in the Hanoi International Airport, detained for eight hours, denied access to any legal counsel, and barred from contacting her family.

Even though she was eventually released with no charges filed against her, her passport was confiscated by the Vietnamese authorities. Currently, her work is being actively suppressed by the authorities.  The Vietnamese government has unequivocally denied these claims.

Truong Thi Ha. Photo: The 88 Project.

Truong Thi Ha, on the other hand, returned to Vietnam on March 25, 2020, after attending a workshop organized by the United Nations Special Rapporteur regarding the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. This gathering was held in Geneva earlier that year. In this event, she spoke about her own experiences with government reprisals in Vietnam. She continued to remain in contact with the UN over the following few months.

After entering Vietnam through the land border at the Cha Lo Border Gate in Quang Binh Province, she was quarantined with other Vietnamese nationals for two weeks due to the country’s COVID-19 protocols. Her identification card, driver’s license, passport, and other personal belongings were confiscated from her at this time. She was eventually released on April 13, 2020, but none of her personal items were returned to her.

Once again, the Vietnamese Communist Party has denied these allegations.

By making it difficult and by dissuading human rights defenders and activists from establishing ties with the UN and other international organizations, the Vietnamese government is once again showing the world that it has something to hide. It wants to bury its transgressions and violations against the human rights of Vietnamese citizens and keep up a false facade of progress and development.

Yet, if we recall from earlier, only 11-25 percent of Vietnam’s reported cases of reprisals are looked into. After initial submission, the UN is given very few updates regarding these cases. Hence, the Vietnamese government usually faces few to no reprimands or sanctions regarding its actions.

As such, the duty falls on the independent press and NGOs to record and forward new developments and new cases of abuse by the Vietnamese government to the UN and to other regulatory bodies.

It has become the responsibility of individuals and organizations with sufficient resources and connections to ensure that the truth is revealed and that it does not vanish quietly into the dead of night. Through our reach and influence, we can slowly nudge Vietnam towards the right path, a path that respects the rights and liberties afforded to all individuals, and where political power is not centralized into the hands of just one group.

And if we all play our part, perhaps the day when Vietnam attains true freedom and democracy will arrive sooner than we think.


  1. Kirvalidze, D. (2019, June 19). OPINION: The United Nations is failing the world's most vulnerable people. Here's how to fix it. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/united-nations-failing-needs-overhaul-opinion-2019-6.
  2. Spannagel, J. (n.d.). (rep.). UN ACTION ON REPRISALS: Towards Greater Impact. The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). Retrieved from https://www.ishr.ch/sites/default/files/documents/ishr_reprisals_report_web_2_0.pdf
  3. Finney, R. (2021, February 23). Critics Roll Their Eyes as Vietnam Applies to Join UN Human Rights Council. Radio Free Asia. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/council-02232021180843.html.
  4. Civil Rights Defenders. (n.d.). Q A on the Right to Freedom of Movement in Vietnam. https://crd.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/QA-Vietnam.pdf.
  5. Human Rights Council. (n.d.). (rep.).Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General Report of the Secretary-General. Retrieved from https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/45/36
  6. Reed, A. (2021, April 5). The Price Of Progress. The Vietnamese. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/04/the-price-of-progress/.

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