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While there have been some positive developments in Vietnam on human rights in 2013, the overall situation remains of significant concern. In August, Vietnam resumed implementation of the death penalty after a pause of almost two years. Detentions and harassment of bloggers, demonstrators and human rights defenders (HRDs) increased over the year. The Vietnamese government introduced a new law regulating the use of the internet and effectively tightening its control. On the positive side, HRDs were increasingly active and able to raise the profile of some human rights issues in Vietnam, including by holding the first Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) parade. Vietnam signed the UN Convention against Torture and gained a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
In 2013, the UK’s human rights objectives in Vietnam were to: support freedom of expression; increase awareness of the potential role of the media to support a responsible and accountable state; increase debate on the death penalty, particularly on the number of crimes which attract the death penalty; facilitate the development of civil society to tackle issues such as land rights effectively; and to tackle corruption.
In general, the lack of transparency and legal and political accountability in one-party state Vietnam remain the most serious obstacles to progress. The UK raised human rights issues at all levels in its contacts with the Vietnamese government, including during the General Secretary’s visit to the UK in February and during the most recent UK-Vietnam Strategic Dialogue in October. We continue to work closely with EU partners in order to encourage Vietnam toward more open and frank discussion of human rights, including through the third annual EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in September.
We implemented projects funded by our Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund, with a particular focus on improving journalists’ safety and access to information. We were proud to be the first embassy in Vietnam to use our website as a platform to host a blog supporting the growing LGBT rights movement in Vietnam.
2014 will shine the spotlight on Vietnam’s human rights record. With a seat on the UNHRC and with its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in February, international and domestic scrutiny of Vietnam’s domestic human rights situation will increase. Should Vietnam choose, this could present an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to international standards and the sincerity of its engagement on human rights. The Vietnamese government has listed its own priorities for the UPR as strengthening human rights education; strengthening the legal system and policies on human rights; and implementation of its international human rights obligations. We will look to support these pledges, and will use the opportunity to expand our human rights dialogue with the Vietnamese government. Our priorities remain to facilitate domestic debate on the death penalty and encourage a reduction in the number of crimes that carry the death sentence; encourage greater transparency; and reduce corruption by working with a range of Vietnamese government actors and the private sector. In addition, we will lobby the Vietnamese government to allow 2014’s LGBT parade to hold official status.
Freedom of expression
The UK remains gravely concerned about violations of the right to freedom of expression in Vietnam. Those who criticise the government or express views which dissent from those of the Communist Party of Vietnam are frequently subject to monitoring, harassment, detention and prison sentences.
In July and August, a broad coalition of activists formed the “258 group”, with the aim of promoting human rights and democracy in Vietnam. Their specific activities included calling for the repeal of Penal Code article 258 (which sets out prison terms for those “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”) and highlighting Vietnam’s commitments as a candidate for a seat on the UNHRC. The group attracted international attention, and the EU met representatives of the group ahead of the EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in September. Subsequently, a number of the group’s members and their families were subject to harassment and detention by the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security.
The Vietnamese government introduced Decree 72 in September to regulate the internet, including copyright infringement. Human rights activists and international organisations expressed deep concern that the decree could be used to violate freedom of expression and control content, including on social media sites. The UK supported a statement from the Freedom Online Coalition highlighting Vietnam’s international human rights obligations on freedom of expression and, through the EU Delegation, raised concerns with the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese have started the process of drafting the guidelines that will define how the law is implemented. So far no legal cases have been brought under Decree 72.
Around Human Rights Day in December, there were reports on social media of police harassment of human rights activists. Photographs and a video which were circulated showed some bloggers being beaten up in their homes. We judge that the images are genuine. The weekend before, two gatherings of activists to celebrate Human Rights Day in a park in Hanoi were disrupted by police, including undercover officers.
The UK supported three media projects to enhance freedom of expression. In the first project a partnership between local authorities of Daklak province (Central Vietnam) and the NGO RED Communication (Centre for Research on Development Communication) worked to improve the public’s understanding of journalists’ rights. It led to increased safety of journalists in the province and strengthened cooperation between the media and government agencies. A change of national law now clearly ensures better protection and access for journalists, including around 5,000 not holding official journalist cards.
The second project was a series of Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) funded workshops and seminars on the government response to media whistleblowing allegations, run by MEC (Centre for Media in Educating Community), with participation by the Ministry of Information and Communication. This led to Decree 159/2013, which introduced sanctions against government spokespersons who do not respond to press questions, or who provide incorrect information to the press. This is intended to improve public access to information.
The third project, again funded by the FCO, was run by The Asia Foundation and focused on investigative journalism into environmental impact. Though at an early stage, the project has already resulted in journalists being invited by district governments to assess infrastructure projects and government participation in the provision of formal training of journalists.
The UK remains deeply concerned at the range of crimes, including economic crimes, that are punishable by death, and lobbies the Vietnamese government at every opportunity to reduce the number of crimes that attract the death penalty. There have been at least seven executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in August 2013, with the execution of convicted murderer Nguyen Anh Tuan. There had been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since November 2011, because of Vietnam’s inability to procure the necessary chemicals for lethal injection. The abolition of the death penalty worldwide remains a UK priority, and the British Embassy in Hanoi raised our deep concerns about the resumption of executions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The EU, with UK support, issued a statement condemning the execution of Mr Nguyen.
In November, Vu Quoc Hao, a general director of a subsidiary of a major Vietnamese bank and Dang Van Hai, the chairman of a construction company, were sentenced to death for their involvement in a US$25 million property fraud.
Convictions that carry the death penalty are a state secret, but unofficial figures suggest there are now over 570 prisoners on death row in Vietnam. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 116 of these prisoners face imminent execution, having exhausted their appeals. Tran Dai Quang, Minister of Public Security, proposed in November 2013 that execution by firing squad be resumed, in addition to death by lethal injection, until the end of 2015.
Freedom of religion or belief
There is evidence to suggest that the Vietnamese government is allowing more space for religious expression, but taking a much harder line where members of religious groups are believed to be involved in political movements or protests.
Most Vietnamese are able to practise the religion of their choosing and many prominent ministers, including the Prime Minister, are openly Buddhist. Vietnam has also increased the number of churches and other places of worship that it has approved for use. The UK has been active in promoting religious freedom and belief in Vietnam. Members of the British Embassy in Hanoi met Venerable Thich Quang Do of the Unite Buddhist Church (a high-profile priest who is under house arrest as a longstanding campaigner for greater freedoms) and a group of Catholic protesters from Nghe An province to discuss issues of religious freedom in the autumn.
In January, 14 Catholic activists, including students, bloggers, and citizen journalists, were accused of having ties to the banned Viet Tan network and were convicted for subversion. The trial, which was closed, resulted in sentences ranging from 3-13 years in prison, with one activist given a suspended sentence. At appeal, the sentences of three activists were reduced by 6-12 months and, in one case, Paulus Le Van Son, from 13 years to four years. The UK, along with other diplomatic missions, met family members of the 14 activists to receive a petition calling for their release; we also supported the EU statement calling on the Vietnamese to uphold the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
In September, police and Catholic protestors clashed in Nghe An province, resulting in a number of injuries. Protestors claimed that the police used excessive force during an organised demonstration calling for the release of two Catholic youths (jailed for disturbing the public order). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a public statement and in meetings with EU member states, denied that the force used was excessive. We welcomed the more transparent government approach in the follow-up to these events, but continue to have concerns that groups critical of government activities, including religious groups, continue to come under undue pressure.
Access to justice and the rule of law
The UK remains concerned about the lack of independence, impartiality and transparency in the legal and judicial system. The Criminal Procedure Code states that defendants have the right to a lawyer during a police investigation; however, this right is often denied in practice. The lack of qualified legal representation can result in unfair legal processes and greater risk of forced confessions. As part of the trial process, a Judgment Board makes decisions largely based on a dossier prepared by the police. The defendant’s lawyer has a limited role at the trial and the defendant has little opportunity to add to or question the information provided in the police investigation dossier.
This creates a high risk that convictions will be unsound. Media reporting recently highlighted the case of Nguyen Thanh Chan, sentenced to life for murdering a woman in 2004. He submitted a written guilty plea and claimed that he was tortured until he agreed to do so. Recently, another man claimed to be the murderer and Mr Chan was temporarily released, while the police investigated further.
The UK supports judicial reform through the British Council’s management of the Justice Partnership Programme. This aims to promote change in the three main justice agencies: the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuracy (roughly analogous to a state prosecutor’s office). In 2013, the programme supported revision of the laws on the organisation of the People’s Procuracies and People’s Courts, development of a criminal records system, and the now completed revision and development of a national strategy for public legal aid.
Vietnam is on track to meet the gender Millennium Development Goals, and there is almost equal participation of men and women in the workforce. However, issues such as domestic violence and sex trafficking pose serious challenges. The UK provides a range of support, including a focus on alternative job creation for victims of trafficking and support to victims of violence.
In June 2013, the British Ambassador opened a UK-funded shelter, Compassion House Lao Cai, near the Vietnam-China border, for young women victims of trafficking. Compassion House Lao Cai operates in partnership with the local Vietnamese government authorities and an NGO. The girls and women are taught life skills and vocational trades to help them reintegrate into society. More than 20 girls and women have received support at the house since June 2013. The British Embassy has also funded a project called “Capacity Building Activities for Victims of Gender-Based Violence” in Dong Da and Thach That Districts of Hanoi since June 2013. The project empowers Vietnamese women in local society. The project is aimed at women and children suffering from gender-based violence (domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual abuse); temporary female labour workers from rural areas (vendors, scrap collectors and house help); and the wider community (local authorities and regulatory bodies, service providers, family members and perpetrators). Each group was given free counseling services, protection, and life skills training.
In August, Vietnam held its first Gay Pride event in Hanoi. The unofficial event gained good domestic and international media coverage, and was considered a success by the organisers. NGOs lobbying for LGBT reform were granted good access to the government. We hope the Vietnamese government can grant similar access to those addressing other human rights issues. The UK has been supportive of the LGBT agenda and we were the first embassy to use our website as a platform for a well-received blog by a LGBT activist. We raised the importance of LGBT rights at multilateral UPR discussions.
Vietnam’s record on economic growth and poverty reduction has been remarkable, but some ethnic minorities have benefitted less. The UK includes a particular focus on Vietnamese ethnic minorities in its development programmes, including efforts to monitor and increase awareness about the remaining challenges as well as support to the education and social assistance system. In 2013 the UK has been supporting a coalition that includes individuals from ethnic minorities, focused on increasing the ability of forest communities to actively lobby for their rights to be heard and incorporated into the upcoming revision of the forest development and protection law.
Vietnam has taken several steps with international partners to strengthen their protection of and welfare for children. Illegal trafficking abroad is a problem, with Vietnamese children making up a significant proportion of all children trafficked into the UK, mainly for criminal and labour exploitation. In February, they became a State Party to the Hague Adoption Convention, which aims to prevent abduction and ensure the best interests of the child are at the heart of all adoption procedures domestic or otherwise. In addition, they have worked with the UK to return a number of UK registered sex offenders and alongside the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to achieve a better social welfare structure. One element of this is education, where Vietnam has already achieved the Millennium Development Goal on access to primary education, nearly reaching a 98% enrolment rate for primary education, including equal access for girls and boys.
In 2013, the UK provided £3 million to improve access to quality primary education for children from rural, ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds. The programme has benefited 500,000 students, around 44% of whom are from ethnic minorities, in 46 provinces since 2010.
This publication is part of the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report.
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