The Weed in a Flowerbed: A Case Against Vietnam’s Inclusion in the UNHRC

The Weed in a Flowerbed: A Case Against Vietnam’s Inclusion in the UNHRC
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

In October 2022, Vietnam was welcomed into the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) with a three-year term which begins in January 2023. It received an astonishing 145 out of 189 votes and was the only country in Southeast Asia to be awarded a seat. This would be its second time serving as a member of the UNHRC; the first was from 2013 to 2015.

While this achievement and the prestige brought about by this event are usually worth celebrating, various human rights groups and other international bodies had raised concerns and voiced their objections even before this decision was made. Despite Vietnam’s consistent crackdown on dissent, draconian censorship laws, and poor adherence to international human rights standards and treaties, the country was able to secure this victory through months of intense propaganda and lobbying to influence the outcome.

One such treaty is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Vietnam aceeded to on September 24, 1982. This agreement, which came into effect on March 23, 1976, was written to protect the civil and political rights of people worldwide. As such, Vietnam has both a responsibility and an obligation to guarantee that the provisions of the ICCPR are observed within its borders.

It should be noted that a country’s adherence to the ICCPR falls under the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Committee (HRC) and not the UNHRC; both are two separate bodies within the United Nations (UN), with the HRC’s main directive being to ensure the proper implementation of the ICCPR, while the UNHRC represents a more global body that deals with human rights as a whole.

Vietnam’s Third ICCPR Review

On August 29, 2019, the HRC released Vietnam’s third ICCPR review to the public. This document examined the county’s performance and adherence to upholding the values enshrined within the ICCPR. While the HRC had a few positive things to say about Vietnam, such as the passage of the Law of Human Trafficking in 2011, the inclusion of a chapter on human rights in the Vietnamese Constitution, and some amendments to the Penal Code, the majority of the document focuses on several matters of concern and recommendations that may aid in their resolution.

Four of these involve the country’s actions, or lack thereof, regarding the death penalty, torture, the protection of freedom of expression, and the treatment of human rights defenders.

The HRC noted that the death penalty is still in effect in Vietnam and that it is still applicable to all felonies, even though this goes against Article 6.2 of the ICCPR. This article states that in countries with the death penalty, this punishment should only apply to the “most serious crimes.”

The Committee also brought to attention the high number of executions in Vietnam and that some of these might have been marred by irregularities and suspicion, such as the case of Ho Duy Hai, who is currently on death row for the alleged murder of two female post office workers, despite the use of torture to get his confession, the failure of police to confirm the murder weapon, and the lack of his fingerprints in the crime scene, and Le Van Manh, who was sentenced with capital punishment for the rape, robbery, and murder of a 14-year-old girl, despite the only shred of evidence against him being a confession letter which he was forced to sign under torture and duress.

In light of this, the HRC recommended that Vietnam suspend its application of the death penalty until it can guarantee that these irregularities will not happen in the future, ensure that the death penalty is applied to only the “most serious” of crimes, make certain that pardons or the downgrading of any death penalty sentence are readily available for all criminals regardless of the crimes they committed, and publish accurate and complete records of all executions. The abolition of this punishment is also mentioned as an alternative to these recommendations.

Regarding torture, the HRC noted that Vietnam’s Penal Code does not explicitly criminalize torture; this lack of legal specificity gives the State an avenue for condoning its use. The Committee also acknowledged Vietnam’s use of torture when a person is in pre-trial detention, its use against ethnic and religious minorities, and the astounding number of deaths that occur in Vietnam due to its constant application. Likewise, the Committee expressed concern for the safety of families who question the cause of death of family members held in police custody.

The HRC strongly recommended that Vietnam stop all forms of torture and ill-treatment and criminalize the act of torture. Likewise, it implored the Vietnamese government to thoroughly investigate all allegations and cases of torture and the deaths that occur within the justice system by establishing an independent and impartial body to look into these issues, prosecuting everyone who is found guilty of using torture, and by providing compensation to all victims and their families.  

Vietnam’s crackdown on freedom of expression is something that is both well-known and well-documented. Regarding this issue, the HRC acknowledged the constant application of Articles 109, 116, 117, and 331 of the country’s Penal Code to suppress free speech and freedom of expression. Likewise, it noted that the country’s use of the 2016 Law on the Press and the 2018 Law on Cybersecurity prohibit dissenting views and stop the spread of criticism against the State. The constant harassment, arbitrary detention, and wrongful convictions of journalists, human rights defenders, bloggers, and lawyers are also mentioned by the HRC as an example. The HRC highlighted the case of Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known internationally as “Mother Mushroom,” who was a victim of State harassment.

The HRC recommended that Vietnam take all the necessary steps to end these online and offline attacks on freedom of expression. The Committee also noted that the state should promote a “pluralistic media” that can freely operate without pressure from the state.

Regarding Vietnam’s treatment of human rights defenders, the HRC acknowledged the country’s increasing crackdowns against this group and the constant threats, intimidation, and physical violence they face regularly. The HRC also expressed concern about the government’s actions against individuals who engage with or contact UN bodies. The Committee stated that these practices hinder civic space development in Vietnam, where anyone can safely exercise and practice their human rights.

Taking all their findings into consideration, the HRC encourages Vietnam to ensure the safety of these human rights defenders and to prosecute any party that would attack or intimidate them. Likewise, the country should allow these human rights defenders to contact or connect with the UN, and people should not be punished for doing so.

Vietnam’s Response

On November 11, 2022, the HRC released an addendum to Vietnam’s 3rd ICCPR review. In this update, the HRC addressed and responded to the additional information provided by other concerned parties and the answers given by the Vietnamese government regarding three of the issues discussed earlier.

Regarding the death penalty, Vietnam holds that retaining this punishment is an effective deterrent against “extremely serious crimes” and is not applied to every transgression or felony. It added that a formal procedure regarding its implementation is followed, which includes the appointment of a defense counsel to anyone charged with a crime that calls for this punishment and delivering news of the sentence to family members within three days. Also, part of Vietnam’s formal procedure is the review of all death penalty sentences by the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court. Lastly, the Vietnamese government claims that all information regarding death penalty cases is published and available to the public.

However, concerned stakeholders state that the information provided by the Vietnamese government is false. They claim that the number of death penalty cases in the country increased by around 34 percent between October 2020 and July 2021, and death row facilities are overcrowded. In addition, they believe that this punishment is not applied only to the “most serious cases” and that a lack of transparency and due process still remains; in fact, information about death penalty cases is still considered classified under Vietnam’s 2018 Law on State Secrets.

Regarding freedom of expression, the Vietnamese government has doubled on claims that the issuance of its laws promotes free expression because it holds individuals who obstruct the media criminally liable for such actions. Likewise, the government claims that it has improved cybersecurity regulations and protected the Vietnamese people's online security. It also specified that the live coverage of National Assembly sessions indicates that freedom of expression in the country is alive and well. However, the government stated that some organizations and individuals have abused freedom of speech to “incite riots or [commit acts of] violent terrorism.”

The opposing parties indicate that Vietnam’s new laws impose penalties for acts of journalism and punish the “posting [of] news, photos or information” that are “not suitable for the interests of the country.” Likewise, they specify the amendments made to Decree 72/2013-ND-CP, which now requires social media companies to remove any content that the State deems illegal within 24 hours.

Regarding the plight of human rights defenders in the country, Vietnam states that the rights of freedom of speech, assembly, association, movement and demonstration are only limited for reasons of national defense, national security, social order and security, social morality and community well-being, under Article 14 (2) of Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution. The government claims that the actions taken against certain individuals were by domestic law and the ICCPR.

Concerned stakeholders argue that the Vietnamese government’s claims are false. They cite that “between April 2019 and July 2022, at least 95 activists, government critics and human rights defenders were arrested, and 113 were sentenced to imprisonment of up to 15 years.” They specified the arrests of environmental activists Mai Phan Loi, Bach Hung Duong, Dang Dinh Bach, and Nguy Thi Khanh, who were sentenced to 2-5 years for “tax evasion.” They also mentioned the case of independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for publishing “anti-state articles” and for “cooperating with foreign media to publish distorted information” when he voiced his concerns to the European Union regarding the European Union/Vietnam Free Trade Agreement.

The Weed in the Flowerbed

In response to all this information, the HRC reaffirms the 2019 recommendations and reiterates that Vietnam needs to implement these and address the given issues to bring the country in line with the ICCPR. However, the Vietnamese government’s dismissive answers, nonchalance, and refusal to engage directly with many of the criticisms brought against it indicate a lack of urgency and willingness to change the dismal state of human rights and other pressing issues within the country. Changing the status quo to appease the international community would lead to a sharp decline in the power held by the Vietnamese government and, by extension, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). This is something the ruling forces of the country will never do.

Under the authoritarian and dictatorial rule of the VCP, Vietnam has become a country where its own people are treated as second-class citizens, a land where corruption festers underneath a facade of modernity and perceived economic gains, and a nation where true freedom is held hostage by the evil remnants of old and dying age.

There is something comical about the timing of the addendum’s release. Just one month after being voted into the UNHRC, the HRC released a document that perfectly encapsulates why Vietnam does not deserve its seat in the 2023 Council.

Vietnam’s presence in the UNHRC stains the organization’s credibility and makes a mockery of what the Council is supposed to stand for. It spits in the faces of the countless Vietnamese human rights defenders, activists, and journalists who continue to work and risk their lives to bring true and lasting change to their country.

Like a single unattended weed that slowly spreads and infests an entire garden, Vietnam’s inclusion into this allegedly prestigious body eats away at the UNHRC’s core; it diminishes the values and principles the body claim to espouse and protect. And if this weed is left alone to fester and grow, the flowerbed, once beautiful and full of color and life, will be overrun by thorns, vines, and an unsightly shade of olive drab green.

The full text of Vietnam’s 3rd ICCPR review can be found here.

The addendum can be accessed here.


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