New legislation designed to regulate associations in Vietnam threatens to deliver a heavy blow to the development of civil society, according to representatives of official and unofficial NGOs.
The draft bill on associations is being introduced to the National Assembly during the current session and could be passed into law as early as next month.
Some civil society organisations described the proposed law as unconstitutional, warning that it could force the closure of numerous groups working on a range of issues from the rights of disabled people to the promotion of human rights.
It is argued that the threat to ban unregistered organisations could violate people’s rights under the 2013 constitution and the International covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a signatory.
Article 4 of the bill defines an association as a non-profit group that is created to protect its members’ interests and to implement the policies of the Communist party and the state, and is granted a license by the relevant state authorities.
Article 10 states that in order to obtain a license, an association must have at least seven founders and they must be “in good health” and have prestige in the association’s area of activity.
Observers believe that these provisions will outlaw dozens of unregistered civil society organisations and could even prevent disabled people forming associations.
Currently there are at least 30 unregistered CSOs working to promote human rights and democracy in Vietnam. These independent groups could be targeted under Article 8 of the draft bill, which bans groups from “connecting with foreign associations” or receiving any funding from overseas.
Pham Chi Lan, an economist and a former adviser in the Economic Council under the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, warned of the consequences of the proposed changes during a meeting with CSOs.
“Vietnam has received a total of $US 2.5 billion in recent years, 80% of which went to state-owned NGOs and the rest went to CSOs. Under the new law on association, once it is adopted, how should we deal with this sum? Should we stop receiving foreign funding?”
The People’s Participation Working Group (PPWG), a registered NGO, on October 17 launched an online campaign to urge the National Assembly to delay adopting the bill on association.
Their petition wrote that the bill was submitted to the National Assembly only ten days before the legislature convenes, and has not been presented for public review.
PPWG warned that a ban on CSOs receiving foreign funding could see Vietnam fall back into isolation and poverty in a globalised world.
There seems little hope, however, that opposition from the civil society sector will succeed in delaying the passage of the bill.
95% of National Assembly deputies are members of the Communist party with no record of challenging state policy.
The National Assembly is planning to adopt the bill on November 18.