Ahead of Election in Myanmar, Nearly 100 Prisoners of Conscience in Prison

Phyoe Phyoe Aung at court hearings in May 2015. Phyoe Phyoe Aung is a young activist and secretary general of the All Burma Federation Student Union (ABFSU). She has been in detention since March 10, 2015 after being arrested during student protests against the newly adopted National Education Law, which they say curtails academic freedom. Phyoe Phyoe Aung and over 100 student protesters, leaders and their supporters have been charged with a range of criminal offences in connection with the protest, and are facing sentences of over nine years imprisonment. Private photo.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung at court hearings in May 2015. A young activist and secretary general of the All Burma Federation Student Union, she has been in detention since March 10, 2015 after being arrested during student protests against the newly adopted National Education Law, which they say curtails academic freedom. Private photo.

Myanmar’s authorities have been locking up and harassing scores of peaceful activists as part of an intensifying and far-reaching crackdown ahead of November’s elections, Amnesty International said as it launched a new campaign to free prisoners of conscience Thursday. Myanmar will hold widely anticipated general elections on November 8th 2015 – the first since President Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule.

The organization believes there are at least 91 prisoners of conscience currently behind bars in Myanmar, although the actual number is likely to be higher. This represents a dramatic increase since a wide-ranging presidential pardon at the end of 2013 when Amnesty International was aware of just two prisoners of conscience. The clampdown has affected a range of people perceived as “threats” to the government, including human rights defenders, lawyers, opposition activists, students, trade unionists and journalists.

“Myanmar’s government is trying to spin an alternate reality where all is rosy for human rights, which the international community is far too eager to accept. The reality on the ground could not be more different. Authorities have intensified a chilling crackdown on freedom of expression over the past year,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher.

A new Amnesty International briefing — Back to the old ways: A new generation of prisoners of conscience in Myanmar — exposes how repression has drastically picked up pace over the past two years, in stark contrast to official claims that not a single person is imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights.

“The numbers speak for themselves – we believe that almost 100 peaceful activists are currently detained, while hundreds more are facing charges. President Thein Sein must immediately free all prisoners of conscience and put an end to the repressive practices that fuel arbitrary arrests,” Haigh added.

The briefing documents seven cases emblematic of Myanmar’s new generation of prisoners of conscience. These include student leader Phyoe Phyoe Aung, who is facing over nine years in prison for organizing protests in early 2015 against a new law that restricts academic freedom; and Zaw Win, a lawyer currently detained simply for using a megaphone to call for an end to judicial corruption outside a court in Mandalay Region in May 2014.

One of these prisoners of conscience is student leader Phyoe Phyoe Aung.  On March 10th 2015 police arrested Phyoe Phyoe Aung, leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), one of Myanmar’s largest and most well-known student movements, in the midst of a violent police crackdown on largely peaceful student protesters. She is currently detained in Tharawaddy prison in Bago Region, where she is facing a raft of politically motivated charges which could see her sentenced to over nine years in prison.

The protests had begun some months earlier, shortly after a new Education Law was adopted by Myanmar’s Parliament. Students demanded amendments, arguing that the law limited their academic freedom. In early February, student groups led by Phyoe Phyoe Aung and others organized four concurrent marches of protesters throughout the country, which were to meet in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. As the students got closer to Yangon, tensions began to rise, coming to a head on March 10th when they attempted to dismantle a police blockade. The police responded by beating the protesters with batons, including some who had fallen to the ground.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung and more than 100 other student protesters, their leaders and supporters are now facing a range of criminal charges, including taking part in an unlawful assembly; joining or continuing an unlawful assembly, knowing it has been dispersed; “rioting”; voluntarily causing hurt to deter a public servant from his duty; and inciting the public to commit offenses “against the State or against public tranquility”.

‘’I want to be able to contribute, as a good citizen, in whatever way I can, in whatever role I have, either to build the nation, to transform the country, or to revolutionize the system,” Prisoner of conscience Phyoe Phyoe Aung said in June 2015.

Amnesty  has also documented a marked surge in repression as Myanmar’s general elections, scheduled for November 8th 2015, have drawn closer. Peaceful activists have been more often charged with offences without bail so they are kept in pre-trial detention for extended periods, while prison sentences have become longer.

“Myanmar’s authorities have clearly been playing a long game ahead of the elections, with repression picking up pace at least nine months before the campaigning period started in September. Their goal has been straightforward – take ‘undesirable’ voices off the streets way ahead of the elections and make sure they’re not heard,” said Haigh.

Myanmar relies on a range of draconian laws to arrest and imprison government critics. These laws contain provisions prohibiting, among other things, unlawful assembly, “disturbing state tranquility”, and “insulting religious feelings”.

The fact that the authorities can – and do – arrest people for exercising their rights creates a climate of fear among Myanmar’s civil society.

The climate of fear is compounded through other forms of intimidation, which include a pervasive system of monitoring and harassment. Activists are subjected to constant surveillance by being followed, having their photo taken when attending events, midnight “inspections” in their offices and homes, or harassment of family members.

Many prisoners of conscience in Myanmar have faced several previous stints in jail, and are often re-arrested and handed new prison sentences shortly after being released, creating a “revolving door of repression”.

This is their message to activists: if we do something they [the authorities] don’t like, they will simply find ways to arrest us,” Thet Swe Win, Co-founder and Director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, said in July 2015.

These laws place unlawful restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and must be repealed or amended to comply with international human rights law and standards, Amnesty says. As a UN member state, Myanmar has an obligation to respect human rights in accordance with the UN Charter and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR states among other things that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, as well as freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Under international human rights law any restrictions placed on the exercise of these rights must be exceptional and are permissible only if they meet three key criteria: they must be provided by law; they are only for certain specified permissible purposes, namely to protect the rights and reputation of others; national security or public safety, public order, public health, or public morals; and they must be demonstrably necessary and proportionate for that purpose.

It is clear that the laws highlighted above, under which human rights defenders and peaceful activists are criminalized and imprisoned, do not meet these criteria, Amnesty says.

The Myanmar authorities have a long history of relying on a wide range of repressive and vaguely-worded laws to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. As long as these laws remain in force, peaceful activists will continue to fear arrest and prisoners of conscience will continue to fill Myanmar’s jails.

“There is no rule of law in [Myanmar] and anyone can be arrested at any time. The laws used by the authorities to oppress political activities haven’t changed yet,” said Aung Myo Kyaw, a former prisoner of conscience and member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPP-B) said in June 2015.

The repercussions go beyond those who are jailed. ‘’The family members of the prisoners of conscience also face harassment in their business and social activities… I worry about the situation of my family outside, their livelihood, as well as the prospects for the future,” said Prisoner of conscience Lu Maw Naing in June 2015.

With less than a month to go before the November general elections, Amnesty International calls on the Myanmar government to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience; drop pending charges against those who have simply exercised their human rights peacefully; and repeal or amend all laws that violate human rights.

The ongoing arrests and imprisonment of human rights defenders, political activists and other civil society members has to stop. ‘’It is time for President Thein Sein to finally deliver on his promise to release all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,’’ Amnesty says in its briefing.

Amnesty also urges the international community, which has largely relaxed pressure on Myanmar over the past two years, to step up efforts to push President Thein Sein to release all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.

“World leaders cannot take at face value Myanmar’s claims to have ended repression. The election offers a crucial opportunity for governments to make clear to Myanmar’s authorities that locking up and silencing peaceful critics is unacceptable. It’s an opportunity that mustn’t be missed,” urged Haigh.

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Global Coalition for the North Korean Human Rights Act Launches

 Thor Halvorssen (c) of the HRF and other human rights activists attend a conference Sept. 30 on human rights abuses in North Korea at the Seoul Press Center. Photo courtesy HRF.

Thor Halvorssen (c) of the HRF and other human rights activists attend a conference Sept. 30 on human rights abuses in North Korea at the Seoul Press Center. Photo courtesy HRF.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) on Wednesday launched a global effort, led by Garry Kasparov and other democracy activists, to raise awareness about the North Korean Human Rights Act, a bill stalled in South Korea’s National Assembly since 2005.

At press conference in Seoul, HRF President Thor Halvorssen said that if signed into law, the North Korean Human Rights Act would establish a human rights monitoring and documentation program inspired by the East German transition; launch a campaign to educate the South Korean people about the human rights situation in North Korea; send humanitarian aid to the North Korean people; dramatically increase the flow of information into the isolated North by mandating financial support for the civil society groups that carry out this work from South Korea; and create high-level positions in the South Korean government—at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Unification—dedicated to promoting human rights in North Korea.

“The North Korean government is unquestionably the worst oppressive and tyrannical regime in the world, having purged millions of its own citizens through concentration camps, enforced starvation and mass executions,” said Garry Kasparov, HRF chairman. The Russian chess master and political activist said that “The South Korean government, every year, provides US$1.7 billion of aids to foreign countries’’ yet “not a single dime has been given to the North Korean society.”

“Consider that there is already a North Korean human rights act in Japan, in the United States. Canada has a North Korean human rights day. The United Nations has an entire commission devoted to North Korean human rights, and South Korea has nothing,” Halvorssen said, criticizing South Korean lawmakers, saying they have been “invisible in this fight.”

Also attending were Serbian human rights advocate Srdja Popovic, Jimmy Wales Foundation CEO Orit Kopel, North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho and Korean lawyer Kim Tae-hoon.

For the past decade, a bill for the Act has remained stalled in South Korea’s National Assembly, trapped in political gridlock. South Korea’s opposition party opposes the bill, arguing that South Korea should not criticize the North’s human rights record, in an effort to avoid “offending” the dictator. They instead propose a different bill, which focuses on sending only humanitarian aid to the regime.

However, strong support for the bill does exist in South Korea, Halvorssen said.. National figures in favor include the country’s National Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Unification, the North Korean defector community, and President Park Geun-hye, who has personally expressed support for the act.  

“A larger global voice is needed to express solidarity with the North Korean people and help the South Korean government and people pass the North Korean Human Rights Act,” said Kasparov.

“Nonviolent action—in the form of information, education, and global attention—is a key component to bringing an end to the living nightmare of the North Korean people,” said CANVAS co-founder Srdja Popovic. “We only need look at the history of Apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union to see how international pressure can assist in bringing down dictatorship. In both conflicts it was ideas, not military hardware, that brought about change. This rings true in the struggle against modern dictators, everywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. With support from world figures, our coalition hopes to provide encouragement for South Korean lawmakers to overcome differences and unite to create a lifeline for humanity’s most oppressed people.”

“The North Korean government’s crimes against humanity are known throughout the free world. The Kim family’s theocratic dynasty has purged millions of its own citizens through concentration camps, enforced starvation, and mass executions. The horror is so great that Japan and the United States have passed laws to formalize the promotion of human rights in North Korea, while the European Union has held hearings on the subject. Canada has established a North Korea human rights day, and the United Nations has created a Special Rapporteur with the aim of investigating the North’s tyranny and a Commission of Inquiry, which in 2014 found that the Kim regime continues to commit crimes against humanity. Absent in this global effort is South Korea’s government—which has done nothing of the sort,” said Kasparov.

The Global Coalition in support of the North Korean Human Rights Act is led by Garry Kasparov and includes democracy activist Srdja Popovic, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Malaysian opposition leader Nurul Izzah Anwar, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, Stanford professor Larry Diamond, former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and several others.

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China Must Free Supporters of Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protests

The Chinese authorities must immediately release eight activists detained for supporting last year’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Amnesty International said on the first anniversary of people taking to the streets in the city. The activists’ support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the so-called Umbrella Movement, included posting messages and pictures online and holding banners in public with messages such as “support Hong Kong’s fight for freedom”.

“These activists are being persecuted simply for posting pictures of themselves with messages saying ‘Support Hong Kong’ and ‘Freedom is Priceless’. The Chinese authorities should immediately drop these charges against them as they have been detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

The activists were targeted as part of a nationwide crackdown in mainland China between September and November 2014, which saw at least 100 people detained for expressing support for the Umbrella Movement. Their detention is part of an unprecedented attack on civil society by the Chinese authorities since President Xi came to power in November 2012. 

Five of the activists, Su Changlan, Chen Qitang, Wang Mo, Xie Wenfei and Zhang Shengyu, have since been formally arrested on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. A sixth person, Sun Feng, has been indicted with the same crime. If convicted, they could face up to 15 years in prison.  

Two others, Ji Sizun and Ye Xiaozheng, could face up to five years in prison on the charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Ji Sizun faces an additional charge of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place”, which also carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Seven of the activists are from southern China. Their ongoing detention appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Chinese authorities to stifle activism on democracy in regions of mainland China close to Hong Kong, Amnesty said. Sun Feng had tried to travel to Beijing to present his own proposal on Hong Kong’s electoral reform to the central government.

In detention, Zhang Shengyu has told his lawyer he was beaten and once tied to a bed with heavy chains on his wrists and ankles for 15 days. There are also concerns for the health of Su Changlan, who has been denied adequate medical treatment according to her lawyer. None of the eight activists has been allowed visits from their families.

“The shameful prosecution of these activists demonstrates the Chinese authorities’ contempt for freedom of expression, which does not bode well for Hong Kong,” Nee added.

Su Changlan, a women’s rights activist who was taken away by police on October 27th 2014, after she shared photos of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests on social media. She was formally arrested on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. Prosecutors have now transferred her case back to the police for further investigation. Her health has deteriorated in detention and she was denied adequate medical treatment, according to her lawyer, who she was only allowed to see for the first time in May 2015. The authorities have also prevented her family from visiting her in detention.

Chen Qitang, a friend of Su Changlan, who was trying to find Su and raise awareness of her plight. He was detained in November 2014, and later formally arrested on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. His lawyer says Chen Qitang was being detained for posting articles in support of human rights and the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

Ji Sizun, a legal activist who openly supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He was taken away by police on October 14th 2014 and was later indicted with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place”. He is currently being held at the Fuzhou City No. 1 Detention Centre in south-eastern China.

Sun Feng, a democracy activist from Shandong, eastern China, was taken away on November 16th 2014, and charged with “inciting subversion of state power”. His first court hearing was held on August 11th 2015, at Zibo City Immediate People’s Court. He was attempting to travel to Beijing, where he had planned to submit his own proposal to the central government on Hong Kong electoral reform. Previously, he had been detained several times for campaigning for democracy.

Wang Mo and Xie Wenfei together with three other activists, held up a banner saying “Freedom is priceless; support Hong Kong’s fight for freedom” in a street in Zengcheng, Guangzhou, southern China on 3 October 2014. They were taken away by police later that day. While the three other activists were later released, Wang Mo and Xie Wenfei have been formally arrested on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”.

Zhang Shengyu and several of his friends held placards in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests on the streets in Guangzhou City, southern China.

Zhang Shengyu was criminally detained on October 3rd 2014, and was later charged with “inciting subversion of state power”. He has told his lawyer that he was frequently beaten while in detention, and was once tied to a bed with heavy chains on his wrists and ankles for 15 days.

Ye Xiaozheng was detained on 12 December 2014, after he posted pictures online of himself wearing a T-shirt with the quote “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny” in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protest.  He was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and his first court hearing took place on 23 July 2015 at Hucheng District Court at Huizhou City, southern China. He is awaiting the verdict.

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New Report Highlights Stories of Women Survivors in Myanmar

Opening-the-Box-English-1-758x1024On Wednesday, the Asia Justice And Rights (AJAR) launched its report containing the stories of 29 women survivors from Myanmar – former political prisoners from Yangon, and internally displaced ethnic women from Karen and Kachin State. Violence against women continues to impact the lives of women in Myanmar in many different forms.

One of the main findings of this research is that violence against women is empowered and maintained 
by a culture of impunity. Galuh Wandita, the Director of AJAR, said: “Women victims struggle with the socio-economic impact of violence and are not able to access basic services. This affects their ability to access justice.”

The report presents the key research findings and provides a list of recommendations for addressing truth, justice, and reparations for the women survivors of Myanmar. Each of the 29 women from Myanmar who took part in this participatory research has a compelling story, but woven together they provide a stark picture about how the government, the army, non-state armed groups, the UN and NGOs fail to pave the way for their survival. ‘’From their stories, we see how they largely had to help themselves, using their strength and tenacity and fighting for survival in grim situations,’’ AJAR says.

In the rush to create peace, authorities want victims of war to become invisible, and magically transform themselves into ordinary citizens without any specialized support. At the same time, governments and international actors fail to see the link between violence during war and violence in times of peace, providing resources to eliminate domestic violence while ignoring those victimized during conflict, the group says.

Based on AJAR’s research with a total of 140 women victims in Indonesia, Timor-Leste, and Myanmar using participatory tools to deepen understanding of women’s experiences of impunity, Opening the Box: Women’s Experiences of War, Peace, and Impunity in Myanmar is a collaboration with AJAR, a non-profit organization based in Jakarta, Indonesia, working to strengthen accountability and respect for human rights in the Asia Pacific region together with Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), Karen Women Empowerment Group (KWEG), and Women’s Organizations Network of Myanmar (WON).

Tin Tin Cho, detained as a political prisoner, told AJAR: ‘’Before sending me to prison, they interrogated me day and night without giving me a chance to sleep. I was not allowed to sleep, to take a bath, or to eat regularly. Even when they did not commit physical torture, they tortured us a lot spiritually. They used a lot of words which hurt a woman’s dignity.’’

Roi Bu of Kachin state was displaced from her home in 2011 and has been forced to move many times since. The Burmese army still occupies her village. ‘’At that time, one of my children came back to me and told me that the Burmese army invaded our village. As she came back running, there was already the sound of the gun. I told my children to flee quickly. As we heard the sound of the gun, the entire village ran across the village. Some could not carry anything with them and they just ran with bare hands,’’ she said.

According to the report, women in Myanmar have little space to think about the concept of justice. Human rights organizations are documenting cases and collecting information, but it is next to impossible to take legal action. However, the desire for justice is strong. Many women political prisoners continue to be involved in political movements as part of the fight for democracy and peace after they are released. Although they have suffered greatly in the past, their desire for political change is undiminished, and in most cases, imprisonment has served to radicalize them further whilst strengthening their determination.

Thandar, detained as a political prisoner, said that ‘’Because of my experiences being oppressed, I must say that there is no justice. To have justice, we need to have a law that will fulfill the needs of the citizens, protect them, and apply equally to everyone. The system must be free of bribery and corruption.’’

Nyar Bwe of Karen state reflected ‘’We have been displaced for about 40 years. The Burmese government does not let us go back to our village. We are living on someone’s land. It is very difficult for us, as we cannot earn our living. I want to go back to my village and my land and be free to earn a livelihood.’’

Yaw Myaw’s daughter was abducted by the Burmese army and kept in their camp for a few months before she was disappeared. The family believes that she may have been raped and killed, but they do not know the truth about what happened to her. They brought the case before the Supreme Court, which rejected it without hearing the evidence. While they still hope to obtain justice one day, they struggle every day for their livelihood in the IDP camp.

The conflict forced Tar Thue’s family to relocate before she was born. Hence, she has lived in an IDP village her whole life, and had to drop out of school because her parents could not afford it. Her father endured severe torture by the military. Tar Thue said: ‘’I want durable peace. I do not want war.’’

Based on AJAR’s in-depth discussions with these 29 women survivors of violence related
 to the Kachin and Karen conflicts and women former political prisoners, AJAR urges the Myanmar government, policy makers, ethnic leaders, and civil society to fulfill the following recommendations:

  • Immediately put an end to violence against women during conflict and political repression, in 
particular sexual violence against women;
  • Change the 2008 Constitution in order to place the military under civilian control;
  • Ensure that Myanmar ratifies relevant international treaties and incorporates them into its 
domestic legislation, meets its obligations to protect women under CEDAW, UNSCR 1325 and 1820, and the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict and adopts the Anti-Violence Against Women Law;
  • Ensure women’s meaningful participation in the peace process and political dialogue and include accountability for past human rights violations in discussions;
  • Establish effective judicial and non-judicial transitional justice mechanisms to investigate human rights abuses, particularly those related to sexual violence against women and establish programs to enable women victims’ safe access to justice;
  • Create the conditions for the safe and dignified voluntary return of all conflict-affected displaced women and refugees to their communities, in consultation with them;
  • Establish rehabilitation programs for women survivors, in particular multi-sectoral services that include healthcare, trauma support, reproductive health care and assistance for aging populations, as well as access to capital through appropriate schemes for job creation, skills training and microfinance;
  • Support women survivors’ networks and linkages between them. Include them in consultations and meetings on peace, development, human rights, access to justice and other relevant forums.
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Restrictions on Freedom of Movement in Vietnam Violate Domestic and International Law

Vietnamese blogger Me Nam, who has faced travel restrictions. Photo courtesy Me Nam.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh has faced travel restrictions and had her passport confiscated. Photo courtesy Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh.

Authorities in Vietnam have blocked at least 33 human rights defenders and activists from freely travelling in the last six months, despite legal protection of the right to freedom of movement. In recent years, scores of human rights defenders and activists have been prevented from traveling abroad or moving freely within Vietnam for peaceful human rights activities, such as trainings, peaceful protests and seminars. Many have had their passports confiscated or applications for passports rejected, while others have faced police interrogation at airports.

International human rights organization Civil Rights Defenders says these restrictions are arbitrary and in violation of Vietnam’s obligations under its own Constitution as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). “As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Vietnam is expected to uphold the highest standards in human rights protection and promotion, but it is doing the opposite by denying human rights defenders and activists the opportunity to travel, associate with others, and express themselves freely,” said Brittis Edman, Southeast Asia Program Director at Civil Rights Defenders. The 30th session of the Human Rights Council began Monday in Geneva.

Independent human rights monitors estimate that between 70 to 100 human rights defenders and activists in Vietnam face government-imposed domestic and international travel restrictions, with no legitimate justification. These restrictions appear to be aimed at punishing them for, or preventing them from, exercising their basic rights, including participation in human rights activities and association with regional and international human rights partners.

Article 12 of the ICCPR, to which Vietnam is a state party, guarantees that everyone has “the right to liberty of movement,” freedom to leave any country, and the right not to be “arbitrarily deprived” of the right to enter his or her own country. Article 23 of Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution guarantees citizens’ enjoyment of freedom of movement. However, the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security issued Decree No. 136 in 2007, granting itself total discretion to prohibit Vietnamese citizens from leaving or entering the country on the grounds of “safeguarding national security and social order and safety.” The Decree provides neither clear nor a precise definition of such grounds or objective criteria for making such determination.

International law only permits certain restrictions on the right to freedom of movement if they are clearly prescribed by law and strictly necessary and proportional to protect a legitimate objective under the ICCPR. The vaguely worded provisions under Vietnam’s Decree No. 136 fall well short of these international standards, according to Civil Rights Defenders.

Vietnam is now preparing for its third national report to the UN on the implementation of the ICCPR, overdue since 2004.

“The Vietnamese authorities should immediately lift impermissible restrictions on the right to freedom of movement, and the international community should hold Vietnam accountable to its professed commitment and obligations to align its domestic laws and practices with international human rights law and to foster a safe and enabling environment for civil society,’’ urges Edman.

Civil Rights Defenders says that travel restrictions clearly undermine the right of everyone to participate fully and freely in human rights activities at the international level. In his 2014 annual report on reprisals against human rights defenders who cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his position that violations, including travel bans, “are unacceptable and undermine the functioning of the United Nations as a whole, including that of its human rights mechanisms.” The Secretary-General’s report highlighted reprisals against religious activist Le Cong Cau and independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, both of whom faced travel restrictions.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires that any restrictions on the right be clearly prescribed by law in compliance with international law, and necessary and proportionate to achieve one of the legitimate objectives listed under Article 12, namely “national security, public order,  public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.” The burden to prove the legality, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality of such restrictions lies with the state. Permissible restrictions must also not impair other human rights and must be non-discriminatory, including on the basis of political or other opinion.

When its record was examined under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council in 2014, Vietnam accepted to implement recommendations made by other Member States to “strengthen international cooperation in the field of human rights” and participate “actively in international programs of technical assistance and capacity-building in the field of human rights.” It has also accepted an important recommendation to develop “a safe and enabling environment for all civil society actors to freely associate and express their views by ensuring that national legislative provisions are not invoked to stifle legitimate and peaceful dissent.”

Vietnam currently participates in several bilateral human rights dialogues, including with Australia, the European Union  and the United States. The UN and international development agencies based in Vietnam also provide technical assistance to government agencies in the protection and promotion of human rights.

Vietnam’s acceptance of these UPR recommendations and its participation in bilateral and multilateral human rights platforms suggest that it recognizes the importance of international cooperation on human rights. A safe and enabling environment for Vietnam’s human rights defenders require that they should be able to travel freely abroad in order to seek and receive information and to cooperate with others at the regional and international levels to further their work. Vietnam’s restrictions of human rights defenders’ freedom of movement appear to be discriminatory and directly undermine the spirit of international cooperation, its implementation of accepted UPR recommendations and compliance with its human rights treaty obligations.

Civil Rights Defenders says that embassies and diplomats of key countries, particularly those with bilateral human rights dialogues or cooperation with Vietnam, should:

  • Monitor and document cases of violations on the right to freedom of movement, in close consultation with human rights defenders and activists in Vietnam;
  • Meet with and provide support to human rights defenders who face restrictions and who seek legal redress for and an end to such restrictions;
  • Actively engage and call on the authorities in Vietnam, particularly the Ministry of Public Security, to lift and refrain from imposing impermissible restrictions on the right to freedom of movement. UN agencies should continue to monitor, document and advocate against reprisals towards Vietnamese human rights defenders for cooperating or attempting to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms. The UN Country Team in Vietnam should integrate the issue of freedom of movement into its technical assistance and dialogues with government agencies. This should be done with a view to encourage the government to align domestic laws and practices with international human rights law and standards concerning freedom of movement.

Recent Cases of Restrictions on Freedom of Movement in Vietnam in 2015

March 31st: Police intercepted woman human rights defender Tran Thi Nga and her two young children, who were Hanoi-bound for her meeting with visiting foreign lawmakers attending the 132nd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), and drove them back to their home in Ha Nam province.

2015 Civil Rights Defender of the Year recipient Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh was unable to travel to Stockholm to receive her award. Photo courtesy Civil Rights Defenders.

2015 Civil Rights Defender of the Year recipient Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh was unable to travel to Stockholm to receive her award. Photo courtesy Civil Rights Defenders.

April: Human rights blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (aka Mother Mushroom) could not travel to Stockholm to receive the Civil Rights Defenders 2015 Defender of the Year Award due to an imposed travel ban. The award statue was placed on an empty chair in her absence.

May 6th-7th: On May 6th, public security officers across the country detained, intimidated and/or prevented at least a dozen activists from leaving their home, ahead of the 19th US-Vietnam human rights dialogue which was held on May 7th. Activists were invited to attend meetings in Hanoi together with visiting US officials.

On May 7th, police blocked four human rights activists—Le Ba Huy Hao, Nguyen Thi Nhung, Le Anh Hung and Nguyen Thi Thuy—from boarding their international flights at airports in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Police confiscated the passports of Hung and Thuy.

May 18th: Public security authorities at Ho Chi Minh City airport confiscated the passport of prominent intellectual Nguyen Hue Chi who was planning to visit family in the US. Chi is the co-founder of a website that criticizes government policies. The authorities later returned his passport and allowed him to travel abroad after more than 100 intellectuals issued a joint petition against Chi’s mistreatment.

June: In early June, Ho Chi Minh City-based human rights defender Pham Bai Hai was prevented from meeting with Christophe Strässer, Germany’s Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid, who was on an official visit to Vietnam. Police in the central city of Hue intercepted Le Cong Cau, leader of the Buddhist Youth Movement and Secretary-general of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), as he was travelling to Ho Chi Minh City to meet Strässer and other German diplomats. The Venerable Thich Quang Do, UBCV’s Supreme Patriarch, is under de facto house arrest at the Thanh Minh Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City.

Woman human rights defender Tran Thi Nga went to the Ha Nam provincial immigration office to renew her passport on June 23rd. On June 30th, a public security officer phoned Nga and informed her that her application was rejected on the grounds that the Ministry of Public Security prohibits her from leaving the country. On July 2nd, Nga went to the Ha Nam immigration office to request a written explanation regarding the decision. The office refused to provide this stating that Nga was banned from leaving the country from December 31st 2012 and this would be in place up until December 31st 2015.

July 2nd: Activist Ta Minh Tu, sister of imprisoned human rights blogger Ta Phong Tan, went to the Bac Lieu provincial immigration office to follow up on her prior application for a passport.  Authorities subsequently advised that her application was rejected because of her affiliation with the independent group Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, which the government deemed an “illegal organization.”

July 12th: Public security officers at the Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport blocked human rights blogger Vu Quoc Ngu and activist Tran Thi To from leaving the country for a human rights training in Thailand for unexplained ‘national security’ reasons. Two women human rights defenders attending the same training, Huynh Thuc Vy and Nguyen Thi Hoang, were also barred from boarding their flights at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City on the same day and had their passports confiscated.

August 5th: Police and plainclothes agents blocked numerous democracy and human rights activists from leaving their homes to meet with the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski. These activists included Duong Thi Tan, Nguyen Dan Que, Professor Pham Minh Hoang, independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, former political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen and Buddhist youth activist Le Cong Cau.

August 23rd: For the third time this year, police blocked Buddhist youth leader Le Cong Cau from leaving the city of Hue. Cau was invited by the German Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City to meet with Volker Kauder, parliamentary group leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) of the German Parliament.

August 29th: Police forcibly took Duong Van Tuyen, son of arrested land petitioner Vu Thi Hai, from Hanoi back to his home in Ninh Binh province ahead of the National Day grand parade on September 1st. Tuyen was in the capital city seeking justice for his mother, who was arrested in June on the charge of causing public disorder for her participation in a peaceful protest in Hanoi against violation of land rights.

September 1st: Police at Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport detained prominent economist and government critic Nguyen Quang A for more than 14 hours before releasing him. He was returning from trips to Europe and the US, where he had attended events relating to human rights and socio-economic issues in Vietnam.

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Additional Sentence for Injured Cambodian Land Rights Activist

A close up of the October 20, 2014 protest in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

A close up of the October 20, 2014 protest in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Cambodian land rights activist Ouk Pich Samnang was convicted Thursday on new charges of intentional violence and obstructing authorities. Ouk Pich Samnang, 52, was sentenced for “causing violence” and “opposing public servants’’.

According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), Ouk Pich Samnang was sentenced to a further two years in prison relating to an October 2014 protest, in defiance of testimony and lack of evidence. He was arrested following a protest outside the Prime Minister’s house by a Preah Vihear community in Northern Cambodia calling for a solution to their land conflict.

On October 20, 2014, security guards in Phnom Penh were once again captured senselessly beating peaceful land protesters, according to LICADHO. About 80 villagers from Preah Vihear province had come to Phnom Penh to ask for assistance from national institutions, to help resolve their land dispute which has affected over 200 families. However, shortly after noon, the villagers were violently dispersed by the guards while military police and police officers stood by near the Prime Minister’s home. The violence left a total of 18 people injured. The protest was violently broken up by security guards, who also beat Samnang over his head. Several other protesters, including an 18 year-old boy, also suffered head wounds.

Police arrested him as he tried to recover from injuries caused by beatings from security guards during the protest, in which several other protesters were injured, including one who was hospitalized. No one has faced legal action for the excessive force used to disperse the protesters.

Amnesty International considers his arrests to be arbitrary, politically motivated and designed to silence dissent, in violation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as well as to freedom from arbitrary detention.

During his trial, which adjourned August 25th, not one civil party or witness who testified identified Ouk Pich Samnang as using violence, including the chief of the Daun Penh district security guards, and three civil parties actively said he was not responsible for their injuries. He was convicted nevertheless under Articles 218 and 503 of the penal code as well as being fined four million riel ($1,000 US) and ordered to pay 10 million riel ($2,500) in compensation to the civil parties.

Ouk Pich Samnang was among the 11 CNRP activists and supporters convicted under insurrection charges following another protest in July 2014, and has been incarcerated in CC1 prison since their convictions in July 2015 after a show trial. With Thursday’s judgement, he is set to serve a total of nine years’ imprisonment.

According to Amnesty International, Cambodia’s judicial system is not independent, and politically motivated arrests and legal action are common. Fair trial rights are frequently ignored.

LICADHO renewed its calls for the courts to not be used as political tools, and further calls for the verdict and sentencing to be overturned.

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Groups Warn of Minority Exclusion and Disenfranchisement in Upcoming Myanmar Elections

Eleven Rohingya organizations in Europe have strongly denounced the undemocratic actions of the Myanmar Election Commission against Rohingya parliamentary candidates under the government’s ‘’policy of exclusion’’ of the Rohingya, debarring them from contesting in the upcoming election scheduled for November 8th 2015. The groups say that candidates have been excluded under the false and fabricated charge that their parents were not citizens. These are the latest in a string of concerns about minority exclusion and disenfranchisement in the upcoming election.

According to the Burma Partnership, despite a promise from President Thein Sein that the elections will be “free and fair,” there is concern among political opposition, ethnic minorities, civil society and the international community that they will follow the undemocratic – and even backsliding – nature of politics in Myanmar. ‘’Unfortunately, the Burma Army’s preservation of power in Parliament undermines any prospect for democracy, regardless of whether or not the General Elections are a success,’’ Burma Partnership said in a statement.

Without the right to vote, the sheer number of disenfranchised voters could result in an unrepresentative Parliament. According to Charles Santiago, Chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, “All counted, we could see up to 10 million people—around 20 percent of Myanmar’s total population—unable to take part in these elections, and that could cast serious doubts over the legitimacy of the vote.”

Despite Arakan state being their historical homeland, Thein Sein government has disenfranchised hundreds and thousands of previously eligible Muslim Rohingya voters and excluded them from voting in the upcoming election, the Rohingya organizations said. They added that the Rohingya people exercised the right to vote and to be elected in all public elections held in Burma, from the 1947 election for Constituent Assembly to the last military-held 2010 election, including the 2008 referendum for the adoption of the country’s constitution.

In a joint letter issued August 28th, the eleven Rohingya organizations says that the parents of all Rohingya parliamentary candidates are natural born citizens of Burma. U  Shwe Maung, whose father was a police officer in Burma, was elected in 2010 as a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to represent the Rohingya majority township of Buthidaung in North Arakan for Lower House. He has been one of the few voices for the voiceless Rohingya in the Burma’s Parliament since last five years.

Other candidates who were excluded include U Kyaw Min, who served the Burmese government as a teacher and education officer for many years, was elected in 1990 general election and was one of the members of the Committee for Restoration of People’s Parliament (CRPP). Abu Taher was graduated from Yangon Institute of Technology. According to Myanmar law only full citizens can study at professional institutions including Yangon Institute of Technology. He was qualified candidate of 1990 and 2010 and elections in Burma. He is one of the well-known defenders of Rohingya rights.

The planned disfranchisement of the Muslim Rohingya, the denial of their right to hold public offices and to represent their people in the parliament are parts of the government’s intention to wipe out the Rohingya minority community from their ancestral homeland of Arakan, the groups warn: ‘’These actions are based on prejudice and Islamophobia and are outright criminal and unlawful.’’

They urge the Myanmar Election Commission to review its decision in line with international law and practices in the interest of democracy and human rights. They also call on the international community to pressure the Thein Sein government to deal with the ethnic Rohingya people and allow them to continue exercising their right to participate in the approaching election.

The administration of the election is already rampant with controversy and questionable ethics. The process of voter registration has received criticism for containing a significant amount of incomplete or inaccurate information. Election officials have not taken a proactive approach to correcting the data and have refused to provide the necessary time required to correct any mistakes.

Due to unwaveringly strict voting rules, a vast number of prospective voters in Burma will be deemed ineligible to participate in the General Elections, Burma Partnership says: ‘’Considering the discriminatory practices of the Myanmar Government against the Rohingya minority, it is no surprise that the recent stripping of the White Card identification system means that the majority of the 700,000 individuals holding that ID will be unable to vote.’’ Migrant workers and refugees outside Burma, who also typically lack necessary official documentation, will likely lose the chance to take part in the elections.

Burma’s multitude of ongoing, armed conflicts with ethnic minorities is also likely to cause disruptions and prevent ethnic communities from fully exercising their right to vote. For the nearly 600,000 conflict-displaced citizens in Burma, voter registration is often inaccessible and in some cases, impossible.

In a report on the electoral landscape in Burma, the International Crisis Group has predicted the difficulty of administering elections in the Kokang region, other parts of northern Shan and Kachin States, and along border areas, where conflict with the Burma Army is widespread. With recent outbreaks of violence in Karen State between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Myanmar Army, it is likely that additional areas will be placed off limits for election officials.

In regards to the fragile peace agreements in place in Karen State, the Karen Peace Support Network has stated, “Ceasefire agreements fail to bring meaningful peace, instead facilitating land grabs for destructive projects under centralized control and increased militarization [by the Myanmar Army]. This in turn reignites conflict.” Thus the potential for conflict to emerge in other ethnic regions of the country, as it has seen already this year, could further jeopardize prospects for an inclusive election.

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China Punishes Reporter For Share Price Fall

Reporters Without Borders condemns Chinese business reporter Wang Xiaolu’s arrest over an article that is alleged to have precipitated a fall in share prices at the end of July. Wang Xiaolu, who works for the independent business magazine Caijing, was arrested at his Beijing home on August 25th for “fabricating and spreading false information about securities and futures trading.”

“We call for Wang Xiaolu’s immediate release without any charges being brought against this Caijing reporter,” Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said Friday.

Published in Caijing on July 20th, the offending article said that the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), which polices the Chinese stock markets, was considering ending interventions aimed at stabilizing share prices. The day after its publication, the CSRC described the article as “irresponsible” and subsequently blamed it for the July 27th fall in prices on the Shanghai exchange, the forerunner of this month’s crash.

The authorities have not yet said whether Wang has been formally charged. Eight employees of the stockbroking company CITIC Securities and two CSRC employees have also been arrested. Officially, they are “assisting the investigation” into illegal share trading.

“As well as ridiculous, the accusations against Wang are symptomatic of the Chinese government’s desire to control media coverage of share price movements. Suggesting that a business journalist was responsible for the spectacular fall in share prices is a denial of reality. Blaming the stock market crisis on a lone reporter is beyond absurd,” Deloire said.

The Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to censor media and online coverage of the recent dramatic movements in share prices. The leading Communist Party-controlled media outlets such as People’s Daily, Xinhua and CCTV have not covered or have barely covered the market movements.

At the same time, many directives have been issued to website operators demanding the suppression of analyses of the Shanghai crash or articles regarded as alarmist.

China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.


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Burmese Authorities Target Land Rights Activists

A policeman stands guard near the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing region, March 14, 2013. AFP photo.

A policeman stands guard near the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing region, March 14, 2013. AFP photo.

Recent arrests by Burmese authorities are targeting those who are assisting farmers fighting land grabs. The recent arbitrary arrest of a prominent land rights advocate in Karen State exemplifies the government’s persecution of vocal opponents of land grabs by officials and their business associates. Burmese authorities should immediately stop using abusive laws on association and expression to halt the activities of land rights activists, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

At about midnight on August 7th, police arrested U Saw Maung Gyi, a leader of the 88 Karen Generation Student Organization. The authorities charged him under section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly providing assistance to a man that police claim is a Karen insurgent. U Saw Maung Gyi faces a two-to-three-year prison sentence if convicted. To further harass the 88 Karen Generation Student Organization, on that same night the police arrested nine farmers and activists who were sleeping at the organization’s office and fined them for staying overnight outside their home district without government permission.

“The Burmese authorities’ repeated use of oppressive laws against land rights activists is a heavy-handed attempt to silence them,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These activists are forced to run a gauntlet of government intimidation, arrests – and now, trumped-up charges – just to try and help villagers stay on their land.”

The 88 Karen Generation Student Organization is one of the main groups in Burma’s eastern Karen State assisting small farmers to peacefully resist land confiscations, which often involve powerful government officials and members of parliament, crony businessmen, and armed groups. Very few organizations are currently providing such assistance to villagers in Karen State, in part because of government oppression.

The arrests of these activists follows the arrests of 27 people in June in Karen State for allegedly violating section 43(a) of the Forest Law after they erected huts on land they claimed to own. They face up to seven years in prison.

In addition, another 13 people from Karen State are facing charges under section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law after a protest in Hpa-an in March. Several of those charged for their involvement in that protest told Human Rights Watch that the protest sought the return of their confiscated land and was peaceful. Both groups face trial this week.

“Land rights activists in Karen State persist under especially repressive conditions as few groups feel they can safely speak out against government abuses without facing retaliation,” Robertson said.

Land rights disputes have dramatically increased since 2011, becoming a major nationwide issue. Increased protests have resulted in a marked increase in the arrest and prosecution of protesters and activists. Most recently, on July 23, police in Pegu Region arrested and charged the prominent former political prisoner and current head of the Myanmar Farmers Association, Su Su Nway, with trespass for her investigations into farmland seized by the Burmese military several years ago. Her trial began on July 29th and she could face three months in prison.

The number of political prisoners in Burma has surged in the past year, with approximately 170 people in prison and over 400 facing various charges. These include large numbers of farmers and land rights activists charged with either trespass or unlawful assembly.

“The arrests in Karen State mirror broader patterns elsewhere in Burma in which land activists are identified, targeted, and silenced,” Robertson said. “Land activists are increasingly becoming Burma’s new political prisoners.”

Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) released a report on June 30th about land confiscation, which provides updated information surrounding the state of land confiscation, while also documenting the emergence of new trends in the fragile post-ceasefire environment of southeastern Burma. KHRG’s research team has offered detailed insights into the experiences of local villagers in their ongoing struggle against the Burma Government, the Burma Army, and both foreign and local investors who have threatened their ability to live peacefully on their land.

According to the report, sources of land confiscation include: infrastructure projects, such as the construction of roads, dams, and bridges; natural resource extraction, including the mining of gold and stone along with logging; commercial agriculture, such as rubber plantations; and increased militarization in Karen State, involving the Burma Army’s construction of bases and the appropriation of land for other military uses.

Overwhelmingly, the consequences of these land-grabbing projects are that they disrupt the livelihoods of the local populace. As land is pilfered for development, resource extraction or military use, local populations are often left forced to give up their primary means of subsistence. This point is further worsened by the environmental destruction of land, which is commonly associated with development projects and natural resource extraction, leaving the villagers unable to cultivate their land for livelihood.

The reality on the ground is that villagers’ lands are not adequately protected by existing land laws and policies,” said Saw Way Lay, KHRG Advocacy Coordinator. He added, “All development actors must recognize the central role land plays in the lives of local communities, and villagers’ rights and voices must be heard and respected in all project planning and implementation.

The report places an emphasis on displacement as one of the major consequences of land confiscation. One case study highlights the effect of the Burma Army’s land grabbing: “The one case of displacement occurred in Nabu Township, Hpa-an District where 30 households consisting of 150 people had over 1,000 acres of land confiscated by the Tatmadaw. These villagers were forced to stay in the garden of a monastery after being evicted. Many of them were forced to abandon the village altogether due to the loss of land.”

Several of the recommendations listed in the report, including the need to increase consultation with local actors and adherence to customary land rights, should be obvious yet unfortunately remain ignored by the Burma Government and investors, KHRG says. Others, such including strengthening community solutions, the demand for land rights to be a part of ceasefire agreements and demilitarization, require a genuine commitment from EAOs, the Burma Government, the Burma Army, and international and local investors, if land rights are to be improved.

Land confiscation is not unique to southeastern Burma, and is a nationwide problem. One salient example that has been the center of national and international attention since 2012 is the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region which, according to a report by Amnesty International, contributed to the displacement of thousands of local villagers over the course of two decades and wide scale environmental damage.

Earlier this year, protests against the mine led by farmers who had lost their land to the state-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and the Chinese-owned corporation, Wanbao, resulted in a severe police crackdown in which one villager, Daw Khin Win, was killed. This incident comes after a gruesome 2012 protest, in which authorities used the incendiary white phosphorus to subdue protesters, which resulted in 50 people being injured.

Considering that 65% of Burma’s total population is involved in agriculture, and are thus dependent on their land as a source of their livelihood, it is no surprise that the majority of human rights complaints to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission involve disputes over land grabbing and forced displacement.

According to KHRG, the problem of land confiscation is exacerbated as a result of two primary concerns; “Myanmar’s legislation regarding land tenure rights remains far less protective than mandated by international law and best practice. Second, endemic corruption in the government administration continues to hamper the system of land tenure recognition and distorts legitimate land rights claims throughout the country.”

The scale of land confiscation issues, noted by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, in her inaugural visit to Burma, will continue to constitute a threat to human rights, and ultimately, undermine the transition to democracy.

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Human Rights Safeguards Needed in Trade Agreement With Vietnam

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) warn the EU-Vietnam Free Trade and Investment Agreement (FTA) would be concluded in flagrant violation of EU law if it is finalized without conducting a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) and without introducing necessary human rights safeguards. FIDH and VCHR reiterated their call on Wednesday for the EU Commission (EC) to conduct a human rights impact assessment before finalizing the deal and to introduce the needed clauses and safeguards.

“The EU’s actions are inexcusable and send Vietnam the wrong message. How can Brussels expect Vietnam to comply with its human rights obligations if the EU ignores its own laws?” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai. “Without strong human rights safeguards, the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement is likely to cause an increase in human rights abuses in Vietnam.”

FIDH and VCHR also call on other EU institutions to stand firm and require the EU to comply fully with its obligations. The two organizations made the call after the EC announced on August 4th that the EU and Vietnam had reached an agreement “in principle” for an FTA, while some textual technicalities remain to be finalized.

Introducing human rights safeguards would address significant shortcomings in trade agreements, weighing in the human rights of European citizens and those of the Vietnamese people over business interests. Such safeguards could include indicators measuring the impact of the agreement, introduce redress and accountability mechanisms for affected communities, and organize a human and people centered development over business interests, notably in re-mediating the deficient and unbalanced investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms.

“Brussels’ refusal to include a human rights impact assessment of the FTA is the latest example of EU policies that prioritize business over the respect for human rights, instead of trying to reconcile them,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

The EC’s move is all the more troubling that it blatantly contradicts EU law and ignores several calls of EU institutions and UN experts, the organizations said.

On April 17th 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging the EC to carry out a human rights impact assessment of the envisaged FTA with Vietnam. On May 19th 2014, the Council of the European Union also stressed the “importance of continuing to carry out human rights impact assessments for trade and investment agreements.”

On March 26th 2015, in its draft recommendation, the EU Ombudsperson, in response to a complaint jointly submitted by FIDHand VCHR on August 7th 2014, found that the EC’s failure to carry out a specific human rights impact assessment, as part of the negotiations for an FTA with Vietnam, constituted maladministration. The EU Ombudsperson recommended that the EC carry out such an assessment “without further delay.”

On June 2nd 2015, UN experts, voicing concern over adverse impact of free trade and investment agreements on human rights, called also for ex-ante and ex-post human rights impact assessments and insisted on the necessity to improve the human rights safeguards in the FTA and investment agreements.

“By ignoring such calls and by precipitating an agreement before the end of the EU ombudsperson procedure, the European Commission suggests it is above the Law, with no institution, public debate or mechanism to prevent this from happening. This questions the Rule of Law in the EU,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

In an open letter published Wednesday, FIDH and VCHR call upon the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union to revisit the conclusion of the negotiations by the EC, so as to ensure the inclusion of their previous demands to make a human right impact assessment, and to put in place the necessary human rights safeguards into the agreement. In particular, the groups said that specific human rights issues including workers’ rights, freedom of expression and legal reforms, forced evictions and land grabbing, and women’s rights must be addressed.

The groups stressed that ‘’The lack of transparency and legal and political accountability of the one-party system remain serious obstacles to progress. There is no independent press or media, no independent trade unions, and no truly independent civil society. The judiciary is not independent either and trials are routinely unfair. In the absence of mechanisms and safeguards, the adoption of an FTA could adversely affect citizens enjoyment of their economic, social and political rights.’’

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