The release of rights and pro-democracy activists will be the litmus test for the human rights dialogue taking place January 12 in Hanoi between the European Union (EU) and Vietnam. The first full-fledged human rights dialogue of the EU with Vietnam needs to be accompanied with the release of all human rights defenders currently imprisoned, in detention, or under house arrest, said the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT).
On January 12, the EU will engage in its annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam in Hanoi. The upgrading of the human rights dialogue follows the conclusion of an EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), expected to be signed in mid-2012. The meeting will take place amid a crackdown on dissent and imprisonment of human rights defenders since late 2009, with the latest sentences handed down just less than two weeks ago. Following the conclusion of the new PCA in 2010, the EU and Vietnam agreed to conduct an annual human rights dialogue that will alternate between Brussels and Hanoi.
“Freedom of human rights defenders to operate without fear or reprisals should be high on the agenda of the first dialogue, and the EU must take all necessary steps with sufficient political will to press the Vietnamese government to protect them, rather than throwing them in prison”, said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President.
On December 29, 2011, a court in Nghe An province in central Vietnam sentenced Ms. Ho Thi Bich Khuong and Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton, two land rights and social justice defenders, to, respectively, five and two years in prison for “activities undermining the State” and “circulating propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the Criminal Code, after the police seized 78 articles at Ms. Khuong’s home calling for human rights. Khuong was also accused of providing interviews to foreign media organizations, including Radio Free Asia, which “blackened the name of the government” and for belonging to human rights groups led by “reactionaries.”
Ms. Khuong and Pastor Ton were sentenced to three and two years, respectively, under house arrest in addition to their imprisonment. Vietnamese State-media also accused Ms. Khuong and Pastor Ton of “collecting documents and writing articles which tarnished the reputation of the Communist Party and the Socialist regime.” They are both detained in Nghe An province. Ms Khuong has announced her intent to appeal the sentence.
Ms. Khuong and Pastor Ton are among scores of human rights defenders, writers and activists harassed, arrested, detained, or sentenced to jail terms for their peaceful pro-rights activities in the last two years.
Vietnamese Government spokespersons and diplomats regularly make statements proclaiming its respect for human rights in law and in practice. In February 2011, Vietnam announced its intention to run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for 2013-2016, a bid that is officially supported by fellow ASEAN member states. Vietnam is in similar company when it comes to lack of respect for human rights in the region. As my RFA colleague reports, nearly two decades after Southeast Asian leaders first proposed a charter to protect human rights in the region, ASEAN officials are still laboring on the first draft, reflecting the entire region’s dismal human rights record.
Yet Vietnam continues to tout its supposed credentials in the area to lure foreign investment. “Vietnam apparently believes it can make human rights commitments for foreign consumption while doing the exact opposite domestically,” said Vo Van Ai, President of the VCHR. “It is high time that the EU make Vietnam answer for this discrepancy and prioritize human rights in its bilateral relations with Vietnam in order to halt the on-going assault on fundamental freedoms on the ground.” Mr. Ai particularly urged the EU to press for the release of Buddhist leader Thich Quang Do, who is held under de facto house arrest without any justification or charge for his peaceful human rights advocacy.
“The liberty of those defending the rights of others is the evident precondition for any genuine dialogue worth its name. Genuine and measurable progress in this field must be the benchmark for the success of such dialogue”, said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.
Human Rights Watch released a 13-page memo today saying that the EU should press the Vietnamese government for progress in four key areas: respecting freedom of speech and association and releasing dissidents detained for exercising those rights; respecting the right to practice religion freely; addressing abuse by police and officials in detention centers and ending impunity for such abuse; and halting forced labor in drug rehabilitation centers, re-education centers, and centers for sex workers and homeless people.
“Vietnam’s diplomats like to tout the country’s respect for rule of law to foreign partners,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “But a justice system that imprisons people who protest peacefully contradicts the government’s empty assurances. EU officials should use the dialogue to demand the same respect for international legal commitments to human rights that they expect for the provisions of international trade and aid agreements.”
HRW stated that during 2011, at least 33 peaceful bloggers and rights activists were convicted of crimes for expressing their political and religious beliefs. The authorities arrested at least 27 other rights activists pending investigation and/or trial. In addition, two bloggers – Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a. Dieu Cay) and Phan Thanh Hai (a.k.a. Anhbasg) – have been held without trial since 2010. A land rights activist, Bui Thi Minh Hang, was sentenced without trial to a two-year term at a reeducation camp for participating in peaceful protests last summer.
Last week, the U.S. embassy in Hanoi said in a statement January 5 that it was deeply concerned about the sentence and called for Ms. Hang’s immediate release: “This lack of due process contradicts Vietnam’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Bui Thi Minh Hang participated in peaceful protests related to the South China Sea last year. We call on the Vietnamese government to release Ms. Hang and all political prisoners, and affirm that no person should be imprisoned for exercising their freedoms of expression or peaceful assembly, or any internationally recognized human right. The United States regularly urges the Government of Vietnam to release unconditionally all individuals imprisoned for expression of their views. Cooperation on human rights remains an important facet of our bilateral relationship. We continue to urge the Government of Vietnam to respect internationally recognized human rights.”
In its memo, HRW also called attention to political prisoners facing serious health problems and that they need to receive proper medical treatment. In July and September 2011, at least two political prisoners – Nguyen Van Trai and Truong Van Suong – died in jail. HRW further said that the EU should raise grave concerns about the health of a number of current prisoners among them the poet and anti-corruption campaigner Nguyen Huu Cau, 65, who has served a total of 34 years in prison – from 1975-1980 in a re-education camp and from 1982 until the present for exposing corruption of local authorities. He has lost most of his vision and is almost completely deaf. Hoa Hao activist Mai Thi Dung, 42, serving an 11-year prison term for advocating Hoa Hao Buddhism, is gravely ill, with both feet paralyzed, and is suffering from heart disease and gallstones, said Hoa Hao Buddhist activists who visited her in 2010.
“Both Nguyen Huu Cau and Mai Thi Dung should be immediately released so they can receive proper medical treatment,” Robertson said. “The EU should ask the Vietnam authorities what they have to fear from severely ill prisoners and why they can’t afford to make the humanitarian gesture of medical parole.”
Some other political prisoners facing difficult health conditions include the Catholic activist Nguyen Van Ly, the Hoa Hao Buddhist campaigner Nguyen Van Lia, and the labor advocate Do Thi Minh Hanh. All three are serving long prison terms for peacefully exercising their rights.
Ambassador Franz Jessen, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Vietnam, began his post in October. His office did not release any details regarding the EU’s goals for the dialogue in Hanoi. On December 12 in Hanoi, Mr. Jessen said that the EU would give top priority to boosting economic and trade relations with Vietnam. He mentioned other areas of interest to include climate change, human rights and prevention of illegal migration.
“The EU fully recognizes that Vietnam is a developing and poor country and that it is accelerating the process of becoming a developed country,” he said, adding that “We’ve been taking this into account during negotiations, that this is Vietnam’s ambition.” He also said that during his four-year term he would “prioritize cooperation” in some fields that have been neglected and specifically mentioned that the EU and Vietnam agreed to upgraded human rights discussions. Prior to his post in Vietnam, Mr. Jessen served in the EU delegation to Beijing for eight years.