Vietnam UPR side event 2024 in Geneva

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May 10, 2024

On the eve of Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Viet Tan and nine international organizations held a conference to shed light on the human rights situation in Vietnam.

Opening the conference, MP Masha Alimi, a member of the Grand Council of Geneva, welcomed the participants, particularly Pastor Vang Chinh Minh of the Hmong community, who sought asylum in the United States due to religious persecution in Vietnam. On behalf of the Geneva government, MP Alimi stated to Pastor Minh, “You are welcome to this Protestant and welcoming land.”

Next, MP Joëlle Fiss explained the significance of the UPR process, which is a peer review of each UN member state’s human rights record that no country can refuse. MP Fiss exclaimed, “If the Vietnamese government wants to continue to be a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2026, as it has officially announced, it must do better, and the UPR process is a unique opportunity to prove it.”

Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, sent a video message reminding that human rights defenders in Vietnam work on a wide range of human rights issues, including climate change and environmental protection, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and minority rights.

Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Ms. Lawlor assessed that:

“In response to their peaceful work, [Vietnamese human rights defenders] are systematically deprived of their fundamental rights by the Vietnamese state, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, criminal convictions, harassment, threats, and surveillance.

If the leaders of the Vietnamese government are truly committed to promoting human rights in accordance with their international obligations, they must support and protect human rights defenders instead of imprisoning them.

I will continue to urge the Vietnamese authorities to end the repression of human rights defenders and ensure that they can carry out their legitimate work without harassment or attack.”

Freedom of Expression

Speaking from Taiwan, Arthur Rochereau from RSF’s Asia bureau declared that Vietnam remains one of the worst countries in the world based on RSF’s annual ranking published on May 2, 2024. Since 2016, RSF has observed numerous large-scale arbitrary arrests and detentions, such as the cases of journalist Pham Doan Trang and blogger Nguyen Lan Thang. Vietnam has also engaged in cross-border repression by abducting individuals abroad, like YouTuber Duong Van Thai in Thailand. Mr. Rochereau mentioned links to Vietnam’s use of the spyware called Predator to target individuals such as CNN journalists in Taiwan. He further recalled that last year, RSF, Viet Tan, and other organizations called on President Biden to exert pressure on Hanoi ahead of his visit to Vietnam.

Panel 1 on Freedom of expression

Nguyen Van Trang, a member of Viet Tan and a social media expert, stated that on social networks, activists face state propagandists and Vietnam’s military cyber unit called Force 47. In real life, human rights defenders must endure harassment by the police and imprisonment, such as the case of bloggers Nguyen Chi Tuyen and Nguyen Vu Binh. The state propaganda team comprises about 150,000 people, who abuse the “community standard” protocols on platforms like Facebook to control content and severely restrict user access to Facebook pages such as Viet Tan’s.

Margaux Ewen is the Director of Freedom House’s Free Them All program, which supports human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists detained in retaliation for their courageous work and advocates for their immediate release. Margaux Ewen recalled that in 2023, Freedom House, CPJ, and the Robert Kennedy Center submitted a report to the UPR of Vietnam that documented cases of detention and torture of civilian journalists in Vietnam. The report also condemned Vietnam’s cross-border repression: the abduction of Vietnamese activists abroad and the arrest of foreign activists on Vietnamese soil before handing them over to a third country. For all these actions, Vietnam must be held accountable and must face the consequences of its actions.

Don Le, an activist and researcher at the intersection of human rights and technology for Article 19, noted that the number of civilian journalists working for independent media has decreased each year due to the regime’s increasing repression. Vietnam’s cybersecurity law has severely limited online freedom of expression, and it is concerning to see that this situation may worsen in the coming years.

Religious Repression

Pastor A Ga is the founder of the Evangelical Church of Christ in the Central Highlands and spoke online from the United States where he is seeking asylum from religious persecution. He recalled the recent repression his church faced in Vietnam, including the sentencing of Y Krec Bya to 13 years in prison on March 28, 2024, and the mysterious death of Y Bum Bya on March 8, 2024. Y Bum Bya was found hanged near his village after being summoned by the police. Previously, Y Bum Bya had been beaten multiple times by the police and forced to renounce his Christian faith.

Panel 2 on Religious persecution in Vietnam

Pastor Vang Chinh Minh is part of the Hmong Human Rights Alliance. He recounted similar methods used by the Vietnamese public security to harass and intimidate Hmong Christians in northwest Vietnam. Since the 1980s, nearly half of Vietnam’s 1.5 million Hmong have converted to Protestantism, which the Hanoi regime sees as an increasing threat. Authorities have sought to disperse religious communities to prevent them from growing. They have forced village residents to move to more remote areas in the mountains. Many have had to flee to central Vietnam or neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Even in Thailand, the Hmong people are not safe as many do not have identity documents issued by Vietnam, making it almost impossible for them to apply for refugee status with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, a founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy, explained that Vietnam is an authoritarian state that wants to control everything in the country, which is why all religious communities must register with the authorities. This is contrary to religious freedom because a believer does not need anyone’s permission to practice their faith. Attorney Dai assessed that in the early 2000s, when religious persecutions were reported to Western embassies, these governments often sent representatives to the scene to verify the facts, which was enough to stop the attacks. Today, this issue is no longer a priority for Western countries. However, NGOs must continue to denounce and alert the international community to all violations committed by Hanoi against religious communities, whether in the Central Highlands or in the northwest regions of Vietnam.

Recommendations

The panel providing recommendations was moderated by Sylvia Palomba from Destination Justice. During this session, Duy Hoang, Executive Director of Viet Tan, stated that Hanoi has made many efforts to build an image of a country respectful of human rights. The regime is very annoyed by international criticism regarding human rights violations. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the minimum Vietnam must do is to respect UN standards on fundamental human freedoms. The responsibility of NGOs is to continue denouncing regime abuses. Additionally, Vietnamese citizens must take an interest in the UPR process because through recommendations made by democratic countries, they can learn about all the rights the regime has usurped from them.

Panel 3 with recommendations

Wiebke Hangst, a lawyer from Media Defence, announced that her organization assists families of detained civilian journalists in filing complaints with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD). UNWGAD has recognized all the cases raised as arbitrary arrests and detentions carried out by the Vietnamese state. For this reason, Media Defence calls on the Vietnamese government to repeal vague laws used to muzzle and suppress human rights activists in Vietnam.

MP Alexandre de Senarclens, a lawyer and member of the Switzerland-Vietnam Committee (COSUNAM), pointed out that he, as well as many MPs from the State of Geneva, have repeatedly sent letters to the Consul General of Vietnam in Switzerland to denounce human rights violations. However, all these correspondences went unanswered from Vietnam. COSUNAM attempts to work with Swiss media to raise awareness about issues of human rights in Vietnam. If Vietnam wants to become an important economic partner of Switzerland, it must further open its civil society.

Sébastien Desfayes, Member of Geneva Grand Council and Cosunam’s chairman.

To conclude the conference, MP Sébastien Desfayes, a lawyer and chairman of COSUNAM, recalled that in 2019, Vietnam had accepted 83% of the recommendations of the international community. But five years later, the situation for human rights defenders has worsened. Sébastien Desfayes does not believe that Hanoi will automatically “become better” after the 2024 UPR. The Vietnamese state will only reduce repression under pressure. MP Desfayes concluded with this statement: “The human rights situation will not improve on the side of the Vietnamese state, but thanks to our struggle, it is certain that we will continue to fight for human rights in Vietnam.”

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