In October 2022, Vietnam was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by an overwhelming majority of 145 out of 189 votes. This shocking event made it the only nation in Southeast Asia to be awarded a seat for the 2023-2025 term. It marked its second foray into serving as a member of this prestigious international body. Despite protests and clamor from several human rights, civil society, and non-governmental organizations, along with the countless reported and verified cases of consistent human rights violations occurring within its borders, Vietnam managed to circumvent all these issues and secure its position.
CIVICUS, an alliance of organizations and activists that works to strengthen citizen action and civil society all over the world, has been monitoring the human rights situation in Vietnam even before its inclusion in the UNHRC. Their latest update shows that the situation of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists in the country remains grim; Vietnam’s membership in the UNHRC has done nothing to compel it to act on its international obligations to protect or respect the sanctity of human rights. As such, the country continues to be rated closed, indicating a complete closure of civic space in Vietnam.
Latest Developments in Freedom of Association
The persecution of several professionals, activists, and journalists is highlighted in the CIVICUS report. Many of the victims are critics of the ruling Vietnamese government who constantly face harassment by state forces and restrictions on their movement, as well as arbitrary detentions, arrests, and imprisonment. CIVICUS highlights the situations of Hoang Ngoc Giao, Vo An Don, and Pham Doan Trang, alongside other individuals featured in their previous 2022 update.
The director of the Institute for Policies on Law and Development (PLD), Hoang Ngoc Giao, was indicted on December 20, 2022, for “committing tax evasion” under Article 200 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code. He previously served as a government advisor on improving the country’s legal framework and pushed for changes in land reform laws before his arrest. In 2020, he also demanded an independent investigation into the police raid on Dong Tam Village. Hanoi authorities have not released findings from any preliminary investigation that would have warranted this action against him.
Lawyer-activist Vo An Don and his family were barred from leaving Vietnam at Tan Son Nhat International Airport; they wanted to leave the country to seek political asylum in the United States. Police stopped them at customs for alleged “national security” concerns. Widely known for his legal activism and for defending victims of injustice, Vo An Don has faced “harassment, intimidation, and retaliation” by state forces in the past.
The CIVICUS update also provides information about the current situation of imprisoned journalist, activist, and internationally-recognized human rights defender Pham Doan Trang, who is serving a nine-year sentence for “distributing propaganda against the state” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. On October 1, 2022, she was transferred from the Hoa Lo Detention Centre in Hanoi to An Phuoc Prison in southern Vietnam. This makes it extremely difficult for her 81-year-old mother to visit her. CIVICUS notes that this sort of action is often taken against political prisoners to make it more difficult for them to keep in contact with their families.
Imprisoned blogger and human rights activist Huynh Thuc Vy was also allegedly beaten and choked by prison guards on Oct. 10, 2022. CIVICUS notes that her brother thinks that Huynh received this treatment because she gave her cellmates her food and passed on their relatives’ contact information to her father to relay information about their treatment while serving time in prison. In Dec. 2018, Huynh Thuc Vy was sentenced to 33 months in prison for “insulting the national flag.”
The former director of the Southeast and North Asia (SENA) Institute of Technology Research and Development, Dr. Nguyen Son Lo was placed under house arrest in July 2022 for submitting a series of recommendations that he thought would improve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). However, he was placed under arrest on Feb. 2, 2023, and charged with “abusing democratic freedoms.”
The CIVICUS 2023 update also notes the sentencing of Nguyen Van Nghia, Duong Thi Be, and Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tien. The three are members of the US-based Provisional Government of Vietnam, which is seen as a terrorist organization by the VCP. As such, they were charged with “attempting to overthrow the government.”
Latest Developments in Freedom of Expression
The state's Freedom of Expression in Vietnam has been on a constant decline. CIVICUS notes several restrictions placed on social media platforms in the country which would “establish a legal basis for controlling the dissemination of news on platforms like Facebook and YouTube.” These new laws and guidelines would give the VCP the power to compel social media companies to ban accounts which post any content the Party deems to be a threat. Under these new laws, social media companies are also given 24 hours to remove any “misinformation” or “false news” on their platforms or risk being severely penalized.
CIVICUS also notes that Vietnamese state-owned media has censored news regarding the mass protests against China’s draconian COVID-19 control measures. This was apparently done to avoid angering Beijing and because authorities feared similar demonstrations happening in Vietnam.
Several journalists and bloggers have also been the targets of the ruling Communist regime, with 39 journalists imprisoned as of December 2022. CIVICUS highlights the arrests of Le Manh Ha, Tran Duc Thach, Bui Van Thuan, and Nguyen Nhu Phuong, among others.
On October 25, 2022, citizen journalist and land protector Le Manh Ha was sentenced to eight years in prison for “making, storing and distributing anti-State materials,” under Article 117 of the Penal Code. He ran a Youtube channel called Tieng Dan (Voice of the People), where he interviewed several individuals who were forced to surrender their land to government-approved real estate or construction project developers. He also actively campaigned against constructing a hydroelectric project in Tuyen Quang Province, which led to the relocation of farmers living in that area.
The current state of dissident poet and writer Tran Duc Thach is also mentioned in the CIVICUS update. Thach, a founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy, was arrested in April 2020. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing people’s administration” under Article 109 of the Penal Code. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) condemned his arrest and wrongful conviction. They also claimed that he was held incommunicado for several months, violating Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Blogger Bui Van Thuan was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment and five years of probation under Article 117 after concluding a two-day trial on November 18, 2022. Vietnamese courts found him guilty of posting articles that “distorted information to defame Ho Chi Minh and other State and Party leaders of Vietnam” and for criticizing the government’s handling of COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic. He was initially arrested in August 2021 and was held incommunicado.
A trial was held on December 26, 2022, for Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Nhu Phuong. He was charged with “making, storing, and distributing anti-State materials” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code and sentenced to five years imprisonment and three years probation. Phuong was a convenience store owner who often used his personal Facebook account to bring attention to political and social issues in Vietnam.
All of Vietnam’s freedom of expression has led to the country receiving a score of 22 out of 100 in Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report; internet freedom in Vietnam remains “restricted” as the ruling government continues to exercise extreme control over the country’s cyberspace.
Latest Developments in Peaceful Assembly
The CIVICUS update notes the conviction of seven people from the Binh Thuan Parish for participating in a demonstration against demolishing a road that runs through their church property. In December 2022, all seven were found guilty of “resisting a law enforcement officer in performance of his/her official duties” under Article 330 of the Criminal Code. The protesters clashed with riot police on July 13, 2022. State forces reported that demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at the police and struck them with fists and sickles. However, the defendants claimed that the authorities used excessive force by utilizing smoke grenades and explosives.
Vietnam’s blatant disregard for human rights is displayed again with CIVICUS’ 2023 report. The information in the report only reinforces that Vietnam will continue to blatantly disregard human rights in its never-ending crackdown on all forms of dissent and differing points of view. Rather than use its membership in the UNHRC as a stepping stone to transition to a more humane and just version of the country, Vietnam chooses to ignore its obligations to the international community and its people. Even worse, the Vietnamese government uses its acceptance into the Council as justification that its actions are in the right.
The VCP still fails to realize that its actions are the main cause of dissent and that only discussion and compromise will lead to lasting solutions that will benefit the country. Yet, what is beneficial for all may not be what the ruling regime wants. Rather, the VCP seems more inclined to look at short-term selfish gains that lead to a few flourishing at everyone else's expense.
Their actions are not sustainable, and as more Vietnamese citizens become aware of the ills of their nation and as the country’s transgressions continue to be brought to light on the global stage, the ruling forces will find it much more difficult to hold onto power. Times are slowly but surely changing for Vietnam, and the actions of the VCP indicate that it is scared of losing its iron grip on the populace. This creates a cycle of increasing control and escalating dissent until something eventually breaks.
The heart of a country lies in its people, not its government. And once all has been said and done, one thing remains clear: no matter the outcome, the people will rise stronger than ever before.
The CIVICUS February 2023 update can be found here.
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