UN Special Rapporteur: Vietnam lacks religious freedom

(VNRN) – Vietnam still fails to respect for a person’s faith and religious belief, the the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Beilefeldt said in a press statement dated July 31.

In addition, people in minority religion areas were intimidated, harassed and prevented from meeting him. Beilefeldt also reported that the laws of Vietnam give the government agencies broad power to restrict and forbid freedom of religion, and specifically cited the example that “the invocation of unspecified ‘social interests’ may even lead to criminal prosecution, in accordance to Article 258 of the Penal Code.”

At a press conference, the Vietnamese Minitry of Foreign Affairs’ Pham Hai Anh, deputy head of its Department of International Organizations, stated that issued raised by Beilefeldt were merely “misunderstanding, lack of further exchange of information.”

In his press statement, Beilefeldt called attention to the difference between respecting a person’s faith – usually called the “forum internum” – and merely the manifestation of religion, which is the “forum externum.”

What Vietnam still lacks, Beilefeldt said, “is a clarification that the internal dimension of a person’s religious, moral or philosophical conviction – usually termed the ‘forum internum’ – must be respected unconditionally and can never be exposed to any restrictions or interferences for whatever reasons, even in situations of a serious crisis or an emergency.”

The unconditional protection of a person’s inner faith, he said, “reflects the insight that forcing human beings to feign a faith which is not authentic or denounce their deeply held convictions may undermine their self-respect.”

“These are absolute prohibitions with no exceptions,” he said.

External manifestations of religions or beliefs, on the other hand, “are not protected unconditionally by international law” and “is therefore all the more important to specify the conditions for limitations in a clear and predictable manner.” Even in this sphere, the laws of Vietnam are vague and ambiguous.

“The relevant legal documents of Viet Nam,” the Special Rapporteur said, “give Government agencies broad space to regulate, limit, restrict of forbid the exercise of freedom of religion or belief.”

Beilefeldt called out specifically Article 258 of the Penal Code, which generally prohibit “abusing the rights to freedom.”

“The wide and vague formulation in Article 258 gives the relevant authorities a carte blanche to sanction people for all sorts of activities – and their underlying attitudes – which are deemed to somehow run counter to the interest of the State,” Beilefeldt reported.

This problem is not merely academic, the U.N. Special Rapporteur said. H emphasized that Article 258 “has been invoked frequently in practice and has been applied to restrict freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.”

When Beilefeldt visited areas with strong ethnic minority presence, in the provinces of An Giang, Gia Lai, and Kon Tum, however, his planned visits “were unfortunately interrupted.” People he wanted to meet with “had been either under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from travelling by the police. Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.”

Beilefeldt noted that he himself “was closely monitored of my whereabouts by undeclared “security or police agents”, while the privacy and confidentiality of some meetings could have been compromised.”

MOFA’s Pham Hai Anh, however, denied it and said U.N. requirements provided for the host country to protect the security of the Special Rapporteur. Anh further said “Vietnamese law guarantees all people the right to meet whoever they want.”

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