Four Reasons Why Vietnam Should Invite The UN Special Rapporteur On Religious Freedom For A Country Visit

A visit would be a chance to improve the country’s image in the eyes of the international religious community.

Lee Nguyen

The year 2021 was the year of the COVID-19 epidemic, which means that religious activities were also interrupted. However, this did not dissuade the Vietnamese government from harassing and arresting independent religious groups in the country.

In early 2021, five members of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ were publicly criticized by the government, even forcing them to sign commitment forms to renounce their faith in front of other villagers. [1] At the end of the year, the authorities of Tuyen Quang Province raided Duong Van Minh’s funeral and arrested several of his followers. [2]

The religious situation in Vietnam has been regularly condemned internationally. In 2021, during a hearing on the international religious freedom report, the German Bundestag criticized Vietnam's severe persecution of religious freedom.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government still claims that it guarantees the right to religious freedom for its people three years after the implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion. [3]

There have also been disagreements between Vietnam's government and the international community in recent times. However, the United Nations (UN) has a mechanism that can resolve these disputes: invite the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit Vietnam.


Special Rapporteurs are essential individuals in the United Nations. The Human Rights Council appoints Special Rapporteurs to work independently, without pay. Their main task is to report and consult in the field of human rights in any designated country. [4]

The Special Rapporteur's two basic duties are to speak up regarding matters within their jurisdiction by sending letters to governments to request their responses on a case-by-case basis, and to be invited by governments to investigate and give their assessments.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has already visited Vietnam twice. The first visit was in 1998 and this resulted in the revitalization of some religions in the country. The second time was in 2014 when the Law on Belief and Religion was being drafted.

If the Vietnamese government believes that it has nothing to hide, the review of the Special Rapporteur is one of the most effective ways to rebut the long-standing accusations of the international community. Here are four reasons why the government should consider this course of action.

1. Vietnam is likely to be listed by the United States as a "Country  of Particular Concern"

Violations of religious freedom in Vietnam constitute a significant barrier to international cooperation. Several countries, like the USA, penalize and severely sanction other nations which habitually violate the right to religious freedom.

In 2021, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an agency of the US Congress, recommended escalating Vietnam to the list of "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC). [5]

Vietnam was first listed in the CPC in 2004 and 2005. [6] At that time,  United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, John Hanford, stated, "... at least 45 religious believers remain imprisoned, Protestants have been pressured by authorities to renounce their faith, and some have been subjected to physical abuse." [7]

Vietnam will most likely find itself back on this list in 2022, especially after the government’s use of force against Duong Van Minh's followers.

An invitation for the Special Rapporteur to review Vietnam might help dissuade the United States from imposing several restrictions on the country’s economy, at least for the immediate future.

2. Vietnam should atone for its poor treatment of the UN Special Rapporteur during his visit in 2014

After the 2014 working trip, the UN Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt stated in a report submitted to the Human Rights Council that he felt insulted by the Vietnamese government. [8]

His planned visits to the provinces of An Giang, Gia Lai, and Kon Tum were prevented by security forces and Vietnamese citizens who wanted to meet him were pressured to call off their meetings. The people who still decided to meet with him, despite the risks, were threatened by police during and after the special rapporteur’s visit. They were also harassed during interrogations and even physically harmed. These actions of state forces clearly violated the policy of non-retaliation against anyone who cooperates with UN human rights mechanisms.

Heiner Bielefeldt served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief from 2010 to 2016. After his visit to Vietnam in 2014, he said he felt "insulted." Photo: UN.

The actions of the Vietnamese government in response to Bielefeldt's visit contradicted its own propaganda on religious freedom in Vietnam. The stain left by this scandal can only be partially removed if the government invites the rapporteur to Vietnam once again and lets him work freely.

3. There has been a significant decrease in the number of religious adherents in Vietnam

Five years after the working trip of Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt, Vietnam recorded a significant decrease in the number of religious followers.

When comparing the figures reported by the government to the rapporteur in 2014 with the results of the 2019 Vietnam Population and Housing Census, Followers of Buddhism had decreased from 11 million to 4.6 million (down 58 percent); Caodaism's adherents had dropped from 2.5 million to only 556.000 (down 78 percent); Protestant numbers went from 1.5 million to just 960,000 (down 36 percent); Hoa Hao Buddhists decreased from 1.3 million to 983,000(down 24 percent), and Baháʼí Faith followers went from 7,000 adherents to 2,153 (down 69 percent). [9] [10]

If the data of the General Statistics Office of Vietnam's is accurate, there are only two possibilities to explain this decline: either the Vietnamese government reported the wrong number of religious adherents to the rapporteur or the religious policies since 2014 have actually severely reduced the number of religious adherents.

The significant decrease in the number of believers in such a short span of time is likely to attract the attention of the international community. They have a reason to suspect that this drop stems from the Vietnamese government's strict religious control. Inviting the rapporteur to Vietnam will give the authorities an opportunity to explain themselves.

4. There needs to be an independent review of the three-year implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion

In 2015, more than 35 civil society organizations in Southeast Asia and the world called on Vietnam to amend the draft of the  Law on Belief and Religion. Regrettably, the draft was ratified without significant changes and this newly passed law set limitations beyond international human rights laws on religious freedom. [11]

In 2021, the USCIRF condemned Vietnam's Law on Belief and Religion. The Commission asserted that the law systematically violated religious freedom and was contrary to international human rights norms. [12]

Currently, the Ministry of Home Affairs has begun to amend and supplement several provisions of Decree No. 162/2017/ND-CP on detailing several articles of the Law on Belief and Religion and prescribing measures for its implementation. [13]

The Law on Belief and Religion also needs to be evaluated after three years of implementation. An individual who is qualified to do this for the international community and for adherents of independent religions in Vietnam is the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Inviting the Special Rapporteur not only helps the government demonstrate its goodwill in improving religious freedom in Vietnam with the international community but also serves as an opportunity to receive objective assessments for amending the legal regulations on religion.

Of course, the visit and assessment of the Special Rapporteur will only be successful if the Vietnamese government truly starts to respect international human rights mechanisms. Regrettably, this still remains a  distant dream.

References:

1.  Luật Khoa. (2021, February 10). Tôn giáo tháng 1/2021: Cuộc kiểm điểm trong đêm tối. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/02/ton-giao-thang-1-2021-cuoc-kiem-diem-trong-dem-toi/

2.  RFA. (2021, December 27). Hàng trăm công an bố ráp đám tang của người sáng lập đạo Dương Văn Mình. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/hundreds-of-vn-police-raid-the-funeral-of-religious-founder-duong-van-minh-12272021042535.html

3.  Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ. (2021a, July 6). Hội thảo bàn về một số nội dung liên quan đến việc thực hiện Luật tín ngưỡng, tôn giáo và Nghị định số 162/2017/NĐ-CP. http://btgcp.gov.vn/tin-hoat-dong-cua-ban-ton-giao-chinh-phu/hoi-thao-ban-ve-mot-so-noi-dung-lien-quan-den-viec-thuc-hien-luat-tin-nguong-ton-giao-va-nghi-dinh-so-1622017nd-cp-postL4QXykm0.html

4.  OHCHR. (n.d.). Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx

5.  Luật Khoa. (2021b, May 12). Tôn giáo tháng 4/2021: Hoa Kỳ đề nghị đưa Việt Nam vào danh sách các quốc gia cần “quan tâm đặc biệt.” https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/05/ton-giao-thang-4-2021-hoa-ky-de-nghi-dua-viet-nam-vao-danh-sach-cac-quoc-gia-can-quan-tam-dac-biet/

6.  USCIRF. (2017, February). RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN VIETNAM Assessing the Country of Particular Concern Designation 10 Years After its Removal. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Vietnam.%20Assessing%20the%20Country%20of%20Particular%20Concern%20Designation%2010%20Years%20after%20its%20Removal.pdf

7.  U.S. Government Publishing Office. (2011, January 5). Calling on the State Department to list the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern’’ with respect to religious freedom. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-112hres16ih/html/BILLS-112hres16ih.htm

8.  OHCHR. (2014a). Báo cáo của Báo cáo viên Đặc biệt về Tự do Tôn giáo hoặc Tín ngưỡng, Heiner Bielefeldt. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/Visits.aspx

9.  See [8]

10.  Tổng cục Thống kê. (2020, March 17). Báo cáo kết quả Tổng điều tra 2019 (chính thức). http://tongdieutradanso.vn/ket-qua-tong-dieu-tra-dan-so-va-nha-o-thoi-diem-0-gio-ngay-01-thang-4-nam-2019.html

11.  UCA News. (2015, December 11). Little change seen in Vietnam’s new draft law on religion. https://www.ucanews.com/news/little-change-seen-in-vietnams-new-draft-law-on-religion/74771#

12.  See [5]

13.  Luật Khoa. (2021c, December 9). Giáo xứ An Hòa khiếu nại vì đất của giáo xứ trước 1975 bị phân lô bán nền. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/12/ton-giao-thang-11-2021-giao-xu-an-hoa-khieu-nai-vi-dat-cua-giao-xu-truoc-1975-bi-phan-lo-ban-nen/


This article was written in Vietnamese by Van Tam and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on January 6, 2022. The English translation was done by Lee Nguyen.

ReligionHuman RightsUN Special Rapporteurfreedom of religion