UN human rights chief calls on Vietnam to free jailed activists

Nada Al-Nashif’s comments come in a report calling for global action to address human rights concerns.


RFA | 022.09.14

The United Nations has hit out at Vietnam’s human rights abuses, calling on the government to release jailed activists and live up to its commitment to meeting international human rights standards.

The comments came in its Global Update, released Monday, which criticized Vietnam for failing to live up to its commitments to the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The government’s growing restrictions on civic space and fundamental freedoms, as well as the sentencing of people on charges related to their human rights work and efforts to promote a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment are worrisome,” said U.N. Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif. 

“I urge the government to ensure diverse and robust participation for civil society, including human rights defenders, and to release those who have been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned for such activities.”

Since the beginning of the year, Vietnamese authorities have arrested at least 16 human rights and social activists, eight of them accused of “conducting propaganda against the state,” or “making, storing and distributing documents for propaganda against the state.” Five were charged with "abusing democratic freedoms.”

Among those arrested was Radio Free Asia blogger Nguyen Lan Thang.

In the past week alone, three activists and bloggers were arrested and charged with “making, storing and distributing documents for propaganda against the state.”

Da Nang-based human rights activist Bui Tuan Lam, Dang Phuoc, a music lecturer at Dak Lak Pedagogical College and Hanoi-based blogger Phan Son Tung were all charged under Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code.

The Vietnam courts have also jailed 21 human rights activists this year. Among them, six were found guilty of anti-state propaganda or distributing propaganda materials and sentenced to prison terms of between five and eight years. Another 10 were sentenced to between one and five years on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms."

Josef Benedict, a researcher at the international human rights alliance CIVICUS, told RFA that Vietnam’s civic space is rated “closed” by the CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks threats to civil society.

“For many years human rights groups have been reporting on the dire human rights situation under the one-party rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam,” he said. 

“This includes the systematic criminalization and jailing of human rights defenders, restrictions on movement, a crackdown on the media as well as pervasive censorship.”

Benedict also noted that Vietnam has recently started using tax evasion laws to target activists and said that the UN’s call for action puts more pressure on the government to improve its human rights record.

“The fact that human rights concerns in Vietnam have now been highlighted by the UN Acting Human Rights Commissioner in her update at the Human Rights Council, shows that Vietnam is now higher on their agenda and that finally these issues are getting increased global attention. Vietnam cannot continue to hide or try to cover up such abuses,” he said.

The U.N.’s Al Nashif said the coming months will be a critical test of whether countries that crack down on human rights freedoms have the political will to change.

“When galvanized through multilateral and concerted action, by building bridges rather than sowing division, political commitment that is grounded in international human rights standards can propel us forward towards more just and equal societies,” she said.

“The pursuit of peace, stability and justice unites us all. It lies at the core of the mission of this Council – to fulfill it is therefore, to uphold our collective commitment to the enduring principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Letter of concern

Al Nashif's comments came as 52 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize sent a letter to U.N. Human Rights Council urging the body to reject Vietnam as a new member ahead of its 51st session in light of its use of tax laws to imprison activists in the country, including fellow award recipient Nguy Thi Khanh, who is serving a two-year prison sentence for alleged "tax evasion." The Goldman Prize, which recognizes individuals who put themselves at risk to protect and enhance the environment, was awarded to Khanh in 2018 for her efforts to moderate Vietnam’s coal expansion plans, raise public awareness about the impact of coal plant emissions on air quality, and advance the use of renewable energy sources in her country.

The letter noted that Khanh, environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach, and at least two other environmental leaders are in prison for alleged violations of Vietnamese tax law, which U.N. Special Rapporteurs on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association and on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression have found to be incompatible with human rights norms and are being used to silence leaders of nonprofit organizations in the country.

"Ms. Khanh, Mr. Bach, and the other environmental defenders currently imprisoned in Vietnam have dedicated their lives to creating a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, which was declared a universal human right by the UN General Assembly last year, the letter, addressed to UNHRC members, said. "With these experts behind bars and concerns about the possibility of more arrests, how will Vietnam uphold this universal right?"

The letter called on Vietnam to immediately revise its tax code to prevent its use as a tool to silence members of civil society and release Khanh, Bach, and the other environmental defenders prosecuted under such laws.

"Until then, we do not believe that Vietnam meets your criteria of upholding “high human rights standards” and we urge you to vote against the country’s membership into your Council when it comes before the General Assembly," it said.

This story has been updated to correct Josef Benedict's name and add the letter of concern from the winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize.


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