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Vietnam's Human Rights Situation Scrutinized

The UN Human Rights Council has examined Vietnam at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, February 5, 2013. All UN member states undergo a review every four years to assess each country’s human rights situation.

Vietnam was elected to the UN Human Rights Council on November 12, 2013, accepting the obligation to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” as set forth in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/251.

In its campaign for council membership, Vietnam pledged to respect and promote human rights by concrete implementation of the country’s constitution and laws. Three experts agree there has been little evidence the pledge has been fulfilled.
VOA’s Victor Beattie spoke with:

  • Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
  • Nguyen Ba Tung, head of the California-based Vietnam Human Rights Network
  • Jonathan London, Professor of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong

Beattie: What has been Vietnam’s record on human rights since the UPR in 2009?

Robertson: “We have seen a growing crackdown against bloggers, land rights activists, religious freedom proponents and other persons who have challenged Vietnam and its government’s views on these issues. It appears that the government is becoming more intolerant of any sort of dissent. Despite the fact that it has now been elected to the UN Human Rights Council, it has a human rights record that is rapidly becoming one of the worst in ASEAN.”

Nguyen: After four years the situation has worsened. The latest report from the Vietnamese government paints a different image of the reality in Vietnam. Every aspect of human rights has been violated. For example, regarding the right of free speech the report says they there are 800 free newspapers and 30 million people using the Internet. The report concludes that freedom of information is respected. But, in fact, the Vietnamese government continues to obstruct people to access websites that are considered sensitive they continue to be arrested and put in jail.

London: We have a contradictory situation. On the one hand the human rights situation in Vietnam has not improved tangibly, at least as we look at the treatment of political dissidents. On the other hand the dissident community has now expanded into something of a vibrant, civil society of sorts that has been quite forceful and effective in generating public interest in and discussion about the need for improvements in human rights in Vietnam.

Beattie: How do you think Vietnam will react to this week’s review by the Human Rights Council?

Robertson: “Whether Vietnam is prepared to act on the recommendations made by the Council and its member states will be noted by those representing Vietnam in Geneva. That will really come from higher levels in the government. I think that it’s critical however that the international community continue to speak with one voice in stating that the human rights record of Vietnam in its current form is not acceptable.”

“If Vietnam wants to play a more pronounced role on the global stage, and as an accepted member of the international community, it needs to clean up its act on human rights. The delays it is been given and the excuses that have been made by the Vietnamese government need to be pushed aside. They need to really get down to the basic job of guaranteeing rights for their citizens.”

London: If you look at what’s occurred in Geneva this week we seen the collection of civil society activists from Vietnam arrive in Geneva and share with the international community their own perspectives on the human rights situation in Vietnam. So it’s quite a lively political scene right now in Vietnam and when I say that I do not want to suggest that things have improved where they have not, but that things are different then we might expect

Beattie: Do you think membership in free trade associations like the Trans Pacific Partnership will initiate improvement in Vietnam’s human rights record?

Nguyen: The Vietnamese government reports there are currently 460 professional-based associations in Vietnam. That is a lie. Up to now, there is no single trade union allowed except for the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor. So every aspect of human rights is violated.

Robertson: The TPT trade deal that is being negotiated also involves labor rights. Vietnam needs to make sure that there is freedom of association for workers to join trade unions of their own choice. Right now that’s not a possibility in Vietnam. The Vietnam General Confederation of Labor is completely controlled by the government of Vietnam. Forming a union outside that structure can land you in jail. I think it’s going to be very, very hard for the United States to conclude the TPT negotiations unless the government of Vietnam is prepared to really make significant changes to the way it controls its labor sector.