The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights is deeply concerned by the grave violations of human rights in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and by Vietnam’s consistent non-compliance with United Nations human rights mechanisms.
Vietnam hopes to become a full member of the international community, yet it refuses to comply with its binding international obligations and respect international norms. Vietnam has ceased all dialogue with UN human rights mechanisms – its periodic report on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is overdue since 30 June 1995, its report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) since 19 March 1999 etc. Vietnam takes no heed of UN recommendations, notably the important recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee in July 2002 to bring Vietnamese laws into line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1), and responds to allegations of specific human rights abuses with sweeping and systematic denials. Moreover, the government pointedly ignores the request for an in situ visit made by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, or follow-up visits by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom.
Political and Religious Prisoners
Vietnam has also failed to provide the information on prisons and re-educations camps requested by the UN Human Rights Committee. Whereas the government continues to declare in international forums that “there are no political or religious prisoners in Vietnam”, cyber-dissident Nguyen Khac Toan, sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2002 and released in a government amnesty thanks to international pressure in 2006, counted 241 political prisoners in just one section of Ba Sao Prison (Nam Ha Province, northern Vietnam) where he was detained. In a document dated 12.5.2006, of which the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights has obtained a copy, Nguyen Khac Toan reported that 225 of these prisoners were ethnic Christian Montagnards arrested during demonstrations in 2001 and 2004. He named 16 long-term political prisoners, including Truong Van Suong (arrested in 1977, serving a life sentence), Vu Dinh Thuy, 30 year sentence, including 10 years for writing “reactionary poetry” in prison; two juvenile Hmong prisoners, Vu A Do, 13, and Sung Va Giong, 15, serving 13-year sentences; Hoang Xuan Thuy and Pham Van Viet, both 70, condemned to life imprisonment for founding “The New Democratic Party”.
Another former political prisoner, UBCV monk Thich Thien Minh, released in 2005 after 26 years in prison for advocating religious freedom, has compiled a list of 66 prisoners of conscience in Z30A Prison in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province where he was detained, many of whom are elderly and sick, detained for decades under extremely harsh condition. Thich Thien Minh and his relatives have received death threats demanding that he stop denouncing the plight of political prisoners in Vietnam.
The Rule by Law – criminalizing political and religious dissent
Under international pressure for reform, Vietnam has made some gestures and promises to the international community. But these are cosmetic gestures, and Vietnam continues to systematically violate human rights. At the same time, the government has stepped up measures to “legalize” State abuses by adopting laws that restrict the peaceful exercise of human rights. These include the banning of peaceful demonstrations (Decree 38/2005/ND-CP, 18.05.2005), censorship of the press and Internet (see paragraph below), detention without trial for suspected “national security” offenders (Decree 31/CP, 14.4.1997 on “administrative detention”), State repression of political and religious dissent (Criminal Code, Chapter on “national security” offences). In 2002, the UN Human Rights Committee declared these laws to be incompatible with the ICCPR, and urged Vietnam to rescind them without delay. Vietnam has taken no steps to implement the UN’s recommendations.
By this “legalization” of arbitrary practices, the government maintains its citizens in a state of legal insecurity and imposes strict State censorship in every domain. Following recent aggressive reporting in the State-controlled press on a massive corruption scandal involving top-level Communist Party and government officials, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai ordered the government to punish press agencies and journalists who revealed the scandal (2). This raises questions on the sincerity of Vietnam’s pledged commitment to stamp out official corruption in Vietnam.
Official Power Abuse amongst Communist Party and State officials
Major-general Trinh Xuan Tu, Deputy Head of the General Department of Security told Vietnam’s National Assembly on 12th June 2006 that more than a third of illegal land confiscations were committed by government and Party officials. He cited many cases, including that of Van Giang, Hung Yen province, where the local authorities reclaimed 522ha of land for a project. 3,940 families who were supported by the land were expropriated without any alternative employment or compensation (3). This is an increasingly grave situation. For the past several years, hundreds of expropriated people from the provinces, especially women, known as the “Victims of Injustice” (“dân oan”), have been gathering daily in Mai Xuan Thuong Park in Hanoi to express their grievances. Under Decree 38, such demonstrations are illegal, and many women have been beaten and arrested by Security Police.
Censorship of the Press and the Internet
A new Decree on “Administrative Sanctions on Cultural and Information Activities” (Decree 26/2006-ND-CP (*), 6 June 2006, signed by Premier Phan Van Khai) reinforces State censorship on all forms of information (press, Internet, radio…). It imposes strict regulations on journalists, and hands down exorbitant fines for the circulation of “harmful” information via the Internet. The Decree makes no definition of the term “harmful”, which is left to the appreciation of the local authorities and Police.
Under Article 7 of the Decree, citizens can be fined up to 20 million dong (1,350 US dollars (4)) for using the Internet to circulate press statements, news, on-line newspapers without a permit; up to 30 million dong (2,000 US dollars) for circulating printed news bulletins, radio broadcasts etc..
Article 17 on the Internet provides for fines of up to 25 million dongs (over 1,600 dollars) for posting any “harmful” information liable to cause “grave consequences”. Internet users may be fined 3-10 million dong for sending “harmful” information or photos overseas, or posting them on websites; for receiving or storing “harmful” information from abroad; for circulating information, news or publications not authorized by the State. Under Article 17, the authorities may confiscate computers and suspend Internet accounts for 90-180 days. Internet providers and cafés who allow their clients to access “harmful” material can be fined from 1-3 million dong. Clients of Internet cafes must inform the owners of their on-line activities, or risk a fine of up to 500,000 dong.
On 1st July 2006, the same day that Decree 26/2006/ND-CP comes into force, the government is launching a nationwide, 3-month campaign of impromptu Police controls on Internet providers, Internet cafés, hotels and all other establishments that provide Internet access in Vietnam.
Vietnamese cyber-dissidents already suffer severe punishments for posting articles on the Internet. Pham Hong Son and Nguyen Vu Binh were condemned to heavy prison sentences on charges of “espionage” (article 80 of the Criminal Code) and “abusing democratic freedoms” (article 258) simply for circulating their views on democratic reforms, and both are detained under extremely harsh conditions. Truong Quoc Tuan, Truong Quoc Huy and Lisa Pham were arrested on 19 October 2005 and accused of “seeking to overthrow the people’s government” simply for taking part in a discussion forum (Pal talk). They are currently detained in B34 Prison (237 Nguyen Van Cu Street, Ho Chi Minh City), and have not been allowed to receive visits from their family.
Article 21 of the Decree also sanctions the “dissemination of reactionary ideology”, “revealing Party secrets, state secrets, military secrets and economic secrets” with fines of up to 30 million dong (2,000 dollars). This aims at punishing journalists for articles that “are not serious enough” to be punished under the Press Law, which provides for sentences of up to 15 years for revealing state secrets. The Decree imposes stringent new controls on Vietnamese journalists, who are in future banned from publishing stories with anonymous sources (fines of 3 million dong/190 dollars), and up to 7 million dong (450 dollars) for refusing to allow an interviewee to read an article before publication.
Violations of Religious Freedom
Vietnam claims to respect religious freedom, yet it systematically represses all “non-recognized” religions, i.e. those not under Communist Party control. In recent years, Vietnam has relaxed controls on freedom of worship for State-sponsored religious bodies, but true freedom of religion remains taboo. Under international pressure to respect its majority religion, Buddhism, and re-establish the legal status of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Vietnam has devised increasingly sophisticated strategies. Recently, the government pledged to restore the UBCV’s legitimate status on condition that it changed its name and removed prominent dissidents, Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, from the leadership. By posing these conditions, Hanoi aims to empty the UBCV of its identity and independent spirit.
In fact, the UBCV, adhered to by 80% of the population, is a target of ceaseless repression. Virtually all the UBCV leadership is subjected to continuous harassments, detention and threats. Although the government claims they are “totally free”, Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do remain under house arrest, respectively in Nguyen Thieu Monastery (Binh Dinh province) and Thanh Minh Zen Monastery (Ho Chi Minh City), denied all freedom of movement and communication. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention proclaimed both monks victims of arbitrary detention (Opinion 18/2005). On 15 February 2006, as Thich Quang Do, 77, set out to visit Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang for the Lunar New Year, over 100 Security Police awaited him at the Ho Chi Minh City Railway Station. They arrested and physically assaulted Thich Quang Do, and detained the monk in secret for 6 hours before forcibly escorting him back to his Monastery.
Furthermore, the government has launched a widespread crack-down on 13 Provincial Representative Boards set up by the UBCV to provide spriritual and humanitarian support for poor people in the central and southern provinces, forcing members to disband the Boards and cut off all contacts with the UBCV. On 1st June 2006, UBCV nun Thich Nu Thong Man was forced to leave Dich Quang pagoda in Khanh Hoa province after suffering several months of harassments, threats, “public denunciation” sessions and pressure on the families of her disciples and novices. At midnight on 28 May 2006, a gang of youths broke into Dich Quang Pagoda and vandalized the premises. The next day, the Head of local Religious Board warned Buddhists not to intervene to protect the nun, because the youths were acting on the orders of the local Communist authorities, and would “continue these acts of sabotage until Thich Nu Thong Man is forced to leave”. Fearing for her life and that of her novices, she finally accepted the authorities’ expulsion order on 1st June 2006.
Other members of the UBCV Provincial Boards subjected to harassments include Thich Chon Tam (An Giang province), Thich Thien Minh (Bac Lieu), Thich Tam Lien (Binh Dinh), Thich Nhat Ban (Dong Nai), Thich Vinh Phuoc (Ba Ria-Vung Tau), Thich Thanh Quang (Da Nang), Thich Thien Hanh (Hue), Thich Vien Dinh and Thich Khong Tanh (Ho Chi Minh City).
Indigenous minorities from the Central Highlands (the “Montagnards”) are also the target of fierce persecution. Since 2001, more than 350 Montagnards have been condemned to heavy prison sentences, largely for peaceful political or religious activities. Mostly Christians, the Montagnards are routinely subjected to detention, interrogations and even torture by the Vietnamese authorities, and many report being beaten and pressured to recant their religion. Security Police are deployed in all Montagnard villages to maintain a climate of fear. The Vietnamese government blatantly violates the agreement it signed with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees to refrain from reprisals against Montagnards who fled to Cambodia to seek political asylum, and who are now being repatriated to Vietnam. According to international human rights organizations and eye-witness reports, returnee Montagnards are routinely beaten and detained.
Vietnam’s adoption of new regulations on Protestants and Evangelical Christians permitting the registration of previously closed “house churches” is also a cosmetic gesture. Protestants report that only 200 of the 1,200 house churches have been legalized, whereas at least 200 more house churches have been banned.
In the light of these grave and on-going abuses, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights calls upon the new UN Human Rights Council to take urgent action to remedy the human rights situation in Vietnam. In fulfilling its mandate to “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon”, the Human Rights Council should urge the Vietnamese government to comply with its binding international obligations to respect the basic rights of all its citizens, notably by inviting the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression, Religious Freedom, the Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit Vietnam, in view of bringing concrete, measurable improvements in the respect and enjoyment of human rights in Vietnam.
(*) NOTA BENE: Re Decree on Administrative Sanctions on Cultural and Information Activities
The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights is informed that the recent Decree on “Administrative Sanctions on Cultural and Information Activities” (signed 6 June 2006, effective 1 July 2006) mentioned in our Press Release today bears two different references in the Vietnamese official press. The Vietnam Committee obtained the text on 13 June from the website of Nhân Dân (The People), “The Central Organ of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the Voice of the Party, State and People of Vietnam”. The Decree bore the reference 26/2006/ND-CP. Today, 20 June 2006, it is still posted under the same reference on Nhân Dân’s site. Another official website, “VietnamNet”, on 13 June, also cited Decree 26.
However, an article on Hanoi’s “Vietnam News website” (12.6.2006) gives the Decree’s reference as 56/2006/ND-CP. The correct reference will be cited in the Official Gazette, which has not yet published the Decree. Apart from the difference in references, however, the texts are identical and our analysis remains the same. We published this information to avoid confusion amongst our readers.
(1) Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee, Viet Nam, 26.7.2002, Ref. CCPR/CO/75/VNM, after examining Vietnam’s periodic report on the ICCPR, which was 10 years overdue.
(2) “Capital Security Newspaper”, Hanoi 11.5.2006).
(3) Over one-third of land offenders State, Party members, VietnamNet, 13 June 2006.
(4) The Vietnamese worker’s average wage is 264 US dollars per year.