Vietnam going backwards on human rights

Protesters outside a court where six political activists were convicted and jailed in April

Vietnam is one of the most repressive countries in Asia which has failed to meet any of the commitments it made to the UN’s human rights body four years ago.

That’s the conclusion of Human Rights Watch in its submission for the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Vietnam’s progress.

The report belies the assessment of some Western governments which continue to give the Vietnamese government the benefit of the doubt, citing some progress on political and civil rights.

“Since the last periodic review in 2014, the government of Vietnam has shown little interest in improving its human rights record. It continues to restrict basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and religion….and prosecutes those using social media to criticize the government and ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)”, concludes the HRW report.

136 people are currently being held in Vietnamese prisons for expressing opposition to the government, with at least 26 bloggers imprisoned in the first six months of this year.

That’s despite the government’s commitment in 2014 to “ensure that the 1999 Penal Code and 2003 Criminal Procedures Code, and their implementation are consistent with its international human rights obligations”, said the HRW submission.

Family visits ignored

Instead of repealing abusive laws, the National Assembly passed a revised penal code last year which made independent bloggers even more vulnerable to prosecution and lengthy terms of imprisonment.

A commitment in 2014 to guarantee detainees’ right to family visits and legal representation has similarly been ignored, says HRW.

It cites a number of cases including that of the human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, and his colleague, Le Thu Ha, who were denied family visits and access to lawyers for almost two years. They were eventually taken to court and sentences to terms of 15 and 9 years respectively. Only the intervention of Germany led to their release into exile last month.

Leadership reshuffle

Vietnam’s previous commitments to ensure freedom of the press and the internet has similarly been ignored.

“The Vietnamese government continues to prohibit independent or privately-owned media outlets to operate. It exerts strict control over radio and TV stations and printed publications. Criminal penalties apply to those who disseminate materials deemed to oppose the government, threaten national security, or promote reactionary ideas”, says the submission.

The report highlights a fundamental change in attitude by the Vietnamese government following a leadership reshuffle in 2016.

The previous administration was happy to play the human rights games with Western governments, granting occasional concessions in the hope of improved relations and easing off on some of its more repressive instincts.

The more ideologically rigid group that consolidated power in 2016 has effectively called the West’s bluff, sensing that civil and political rights are a low priority for governments hungry for closer economic and security ties with Hanoi.