Vietnam can be challenged on human rights commitments

The Vietnamese government is accused by its critics at home and abroad of systematically shirking its international commitments on human rights.

Despite signing up to a number of human rights agreements at the United Nations, Vietnam rarely complies with its obligation to report on any progress.

Activists, however, see opportunities to use Hanoi’s legally agreed international obligations to hold it to account.

They say 2016 should provide many such opportunities, as Vietnam is required to report to a number of international bodies.

Pham Le Vuong Cac, a human rights defender and Hanoi law student, sent this report on ways that activists can challenge a government that continues to persecute pro-democracy activists, independent bloggers and other government critics.

Vietnamese police are accused of widespread abuses and virtual impunity. Photo courtesy Reuters.

Vietnamese police are accused of widespread abuses and virtual impunity. Photo courtesy Reuters.

Vietnam is an incumbent member state on the United Nations Human Rights Council and has ratified 7 out of 9 UN human rights treaties.

However, it has a history of making empty gestures on the international stage while keeping up repression at home.

It can be said that Vietnam’s attempt to join the Human Rights Council was intended merely to deflect criticism of its human rights record from the international community.

Vietnam, however, can be held to account.

At five events during 2016, NGOs and other civil society groups have an opportunity to shine a light on the real situation in the country.

Repeatedly failed to file reports

Vietnam is required to send periodic reports to international bodies to explain its record on human rights.

One of the most important is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Vietnam signed up to in 1982.

Hanoi has, however, never filed the required reports to this body in a timely fashion.

It has repeatedly failed to file its third report, which was requested 12 years ago, in 2004.

There are, however,  signs that the Department of Justice, which took over responsibility from the Department of Foreign Affairs, is now preparing a draft for release later this year.

ICCPR is one of the three important documents to comprise the International Bill of Human Rights (alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

The treaty invites watchdogs in the civil society sector to actively participate in the monitoring process. Vietnamese civil society activists will also be able to submit parallel reports to the Human Rights Committee.

This is an opportunity that can be seized by rights campaigners to get their message out to the international community.

Police brutality

Vietnam has also ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and it took effect in February last year.

Under the convention, governments are required to submit reports on the measures they have taken to eliminate torture within one year of ratification.

Vietnam is now scheduled to submit its first report, although there is no indication that it is about to do so.

226 people died in police custody in Vietnam in a three year period between 2011 and 2104. That is an official figure released in a report in March 2015 by the Standing Committee of the National Assembly of Vietnam.

The real figure could be much higher.

Police brutality is rarely reported in state-controlled media and many cases only come to light through social media.

The high number of deaths in custody is a clear indication that Vietnam is failing in its responsibility to eradicate torture, and lacks commitment to change, despite the ratification of CAT.

There can be little hope of progress while detention facilities continue to be run by the police alone, with no oversight by other agencies, and while detainees are denied any access to a lawyer while being investigated.

The absence of an independent judiciary is another aggravating factor.

Vietnam opted out of article 20 when it ratified the convention, meaning that the Committee against Torture is not empowered to hear complaints from individuals in Vietnam.

If Vietnam fails to submit its first report as required by the Committee, international and domestic groups need to seize the initiative and submit parallel reports, highlighting the widespread and systematic use of torture by the police.

Penal code strengthened

Another area where pressure can be exerted is through the Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) conducted under the auspices of the Human Right Council at the UN.

In 2014, Vietnam accepted 182 recommendations to improve its human rights record and rejected 45.

However, it dragged its feet for more than a year before taking any steps to address the concerns.

One recommendation, from Canada, was to amend the provisions concerning offences against national security which can be used to restrict freedom of expression; particularly articles 79, 88 and 258 of the penal code.

Despite this, however, a revised penal code, approved in November last year, not only retains the wording and the spirit of the national security provisions, but also extends the scope of their application to “people preparing to commit a crime”

National security laws are often employed to imprison democracy activists and human rights defenders.

This issue should be addressed by the international community when Vietnam submits its mid-term report on the implementation of UPR recommendations in October 2016.

Even if it fails to do so, NGOs can submit their mid-term reports to draw attention to the abuses. They can also make oral statements during plenary sessions at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Inadequate food for inmates

Vietnam has refused to allow a visit by the special rapporteur on human rights, despite a request in 2012 from Geneva to send a fact finding mission.

It has accepted visits by other special rapporteurs, including a fact finding mission on freedom of religion and belief in 2014.

This led, however, to allegations that the government violated the terms of reference. A number of witnesses were prevented by police from attending meetings, and some were attacked by plainclothes agents.

Vietnam has said it will allow a visit by the special rapporteur on the right to food this year. This should give human rights defenders an opportunity to raise a number of troubling issues.

Vietnam is dealing with severe food safety and public health problems due to poor administration, as well as chronic malnutrition amongst ethnic minorities, and inadequate provision of food for inmates and detainees.

As for Vietnam’s membership of the Human Rights Council – it secured a seat on the council on 1st January 2014.

It made a pledge during its campaign to set up a national human rights institution. This, however, has yet to be implemented.

Vietnam’s membership will conclude at the end of this year with very little prospect of there having been any improvement in human rights in Vietnam.

Despite the lack of progress, Vietnam is likely to campaign for another term on the council in 2017.

The campaign will provide another opportunity for international and domestic groups to highlight continuing abuses in Vietnam.