Viet Tan’s Chairman appeared as a witness before Canada’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development regarding the human rights situation in Vietnam.
Subcommittee on International Human Rights
Of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development
Human Rights Situation in Vietnam
April 21, 2015
Diem Hoang Do
Chairman, Viet Tan
Mr. Scott Reid, Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights,
Distinguished Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
First, I would like to thank the Subcommittee on International Human Rights for holding this meeting and for providing me the opportunity to speak about Human Rights Situation in Vietnam. At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Canada graciously received many Vietnamese refugees and provided them with a new home. For this kindness and generosity, we would like to express our deepest gratitude to you.
April 30th marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. We must examine how 40 years of communist rule has affected the people of Vietnam. Since 1975, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) established one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in our history. Immediately after taking control of South Vietnam, the CPV sent hundreds of thousands of people into prison camps where thousands died from torturing, starvation, diseases and exhaustion from extreme labor. From 1975 and well into the 1990s, their reign of terror drove many people into a mass exodus from Vietnam. Of those who tried to escape by boat, many perished at sea or fell victim to pirates, including hundreds of women and young girls who were raped or kidnapped.
Perhaps, the most glaring aspect of their 40-year rule is their abysmal human rights record. For today’s meeting, I would like to focus my presentation on five key areas.
Freedom of Expression and Information
In Vietnam, the state controls all print and broadcast media. Foreign news and television shows are censored before they reach the Vietnamese audience. The government actively silences critics through police intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, court convictions and severe prison sentences. According to Reporters Without Border’s 2015 Press Freedom Index, Vietnam ranked 175th out of 180 countries surveyed.
In September 2013, the government passed Decree 72 giving the state sweeping powers to restrict speech on Internet blogs and social media. In January 2014, they passed Decree 174 instituting harsh penalties for social media and Internet users who voice “anti-state propaganda” or “reactionary ideologies”. The government also uses DDOS attacks to shut down opposition websites, and spyware and malware to hack into activists’ computers. According to Freedom House, they also employ thousands of “public opinion shapers” to spread favorable state propaganda on the Internet.
The top two recommendations for Vietnam from the UN Universal Periodic Review in February 2014 were:
- To create conditions favorable to the realization of freedom of opinion, expression and association;
- To ensure that freedom of expression was protected both offline and online and to enable unrestricted access and use of the internet and allow bloggers, journalists and other internet users and NGOs to promote and protect human rights.
Freedom of Assembly and Association
The Government of Vietnam bans all political parties, labor unions, and human rights organizations independent of the government or the Communist Party. The authorities require official approval for public gatherings and refuse to grant permission for meetings, marches, or protests they deem unacceptable.
However, in recent years, numerous protests broke out over land confiscations by corrupt officials, over poor labor conditions and inadequate labor policy, and over territorial disputes with China. In response, state security forces regularly crack down on people participating in these protests, and many activists were either detained or sentenced up to 7 years in prison.
Freedom of Religion or Belief
Although religious freedom is protected under the Vietnamese Constitution; however, there are many related administrative decrees placing significant limitations on religious freedom. Most recently, Decree 92 was passed in January 2013, further extending government’s control on religious groups.
All religious groups are required to join a party-controlled umbrella organization called Vietnam Fatherland Front. Those who fail to do so are often arrested and harassed. Religious groups most often targeted by the government include the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant and house churches, the Catholic Redemptorists, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. As an example, local authority is trying to force the relocation of Lien Tri Pagoda, an affiliate with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, from its current location of almost 60 years. The main reason is because the pagoda serves as a hub for unsanctioned civil society organizations including the Interfaith Council of Vietnam.
Vietnam’s current situation can be best captured in the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief after his visit to Vietnam in July 2014. Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt wrote in his summary that “whereas religious life and religious diversity are a reality in Vietnam today, autonomy and activities of independent religious or belief communities, that is, unrecognized communities, remain restricted and unsafe, with the rights to freedom of religion or belief of such communities grossly violated in the face of constant surveillance, intimidation, harassment and persecution.”
Vietnam is a one-party State in which the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has a firm monopoly over political power. This monopoly is guaranteed in Article 4 of the recently amended 2013 Constitution, which states that the CPV is the sole force “leading the State and society.” As mentioned above, all opposition political parties are banned and severely persecuted. Members of Vietnam’s legislature are elected in general elections; however, all candidates are vetted by the CPV controlled Vietnam Fatherland Front. This earned Vietnam a Freedom House 2015 Political Rights score of 7, with 1 being best and 7 being worst.
As a result, the CPV controls all branches of the government and according to Freedom House, “party membership is widely viewed as a means to business and societal connections, and corruption and nepotism among party members are a continuing problem.” In Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index, Vietnam ranked 119 out of 175 countries in the world.
Despite many challenges, human rights defenders, democracy activists, intellectuals, and increasingly some former high ranking CPV officials have openly called for political reform and greater respect for human rights. Still the government responded with more arrests, harassment and intimidation; a repression many international human rights organization label as the worst in the last 20 years.
Rule of Law
Instead of the rule of law, the Vietnamese government has relied on the “rule by law” approach, applying sweeping national security provisions to suppress basic rights. To curtail freedom of speech, activists are charged with vaguely worded articles in the penal code such as “conducting propaganda against the state” (Article 88), “subversion of the people’s administration” (Article 79), or “misuse of democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens” (Article 258). In addition, Vietnam’s judiciary is under the control of the CPV. In politically motivated cases, trials are often conducted hastily and routinely lack the impartiality required by international law.
Vietnamese law also authorizes “administrative detention” without trial, deeming peaceful dissidents as a threat to national security and placing many under house arrest. To avoid international criticism, authorities have sometimes applied non-political charges such as “tax evasion” to jail high profile activists. As an example, in the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report, the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office classified Vietnam as a “country of concern” with the following observation: “There is a lack of transparency and accountability throughout the legal system. We are concerned that the state uses the courts to punish dissidents by prosecuting them on unrelated matters. For example, in the case of Le Quoc Quan, whose sentence to 30 months in prison for tax evasion was upheld in February (2014), the UK assessed that he was imprisoned for voicing his opinions on religion, corruption and land reform, and that his trial was unfair.”
In conclusion, to protect human rights and ultimately to support democracy in Vietnam, I would like to make the following recommendations.
Call for political prisoner releases:
I urge that the Government of Canada joins the UN 2014 Universal Periodic Review in calling on the Vietnamese government “to immediately release all political prisoners held and those held for peaceful expression or religious beliefs.” It is estimated that there are currently hundreds of political prisoners in Vietnam. The list of prominent prisoners include: attorney Le Quoc Quan; bloggers Ta Phong Tan, Nguyen Dinh Ngoc, and Nguyen Huu Vinh; land rights activist Tran Thi Thuy; musician Viet Khang; activist Bui Minh Hang, pastors Duong Kim Khai and Nguyen Cong Chinh; and Catholic human rights defenders including Ho Duc Hoa, Dang Xuan Dieu, and Nguyen Dang Minh Man.
Outreach to civil society:
The Canadian Embassy in Vietnam should meet with and support independent grassroots organizations especially those advocating for social reform, legal reform, and human rights. In addition, engaging with human rights defenders, and the relatives of those in prison, would be very helpful.
Focus on legal reform:
The Government of Canada can insist that the Government of Vietnam abolish Articles 79, 88 and 258 of the penal code; and Administrative Decrees 72, 92 and 174. Canadian Embassy officials should request to attend political trials and insist that the Government of Vietnam respect the rights to assemble, to exercise free speech, and to form civic organizations.
Integrate human rights into the overall bilateral relationship:
The Government of Canada can incorporate legal reform and internet freedom into the agenda for promoting higher education and trade with Vietnam, develop a roadmap linking human rights improvements with closer economic and security ties; and continue to raise human rights during all Parliamentary and executive branch visits to Vietnam.
For many years, the international community, especially the Canadian government and people, have been supporting human rights in Vietnam. We thank you for all you have done. We believe a free and democratic Vietnam, where human rights are respected, is in the best interest of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. We ask for your support in bringing human rights and freedom to our country, so that Vietnam can become a reliable and strong partner for a safe and prosperous Southeast Asia.
Thank you again for having me here today and I look forward to working with many of you in the future.