PARIS, 2nd August 2016 (VCHR) – Australia must use upcoming talks with Vietnam to demand that Hanoi urgently address serious human rights violations, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said today. The organization made the call ahead of the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue to be held in Hanoi this Thursday, 4th August 2016.
VCHR stressed that the dialogue takes place as Vietnam is stepping up violence against civil society activists, brutally quelling peaceful demonstrations and adopting an arsenal of restrictive laws which entrench its repressive human rights policies and criminalize the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, religion, assembly and association.
“Over the past year, Vietnam has adopted more repressive legislation than ever before, and Police brutality against human rights defenders is escalating”, said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “Australia should use the talks to pressure Vietnam to make concrete, measurable and time-bound progress in respecting human rights”.
In a submission to the Australian government ahead of the dialogue, the VCHR raised concerns about the impact of the dialogue process itself. Australia is the only Asia-Pacific country to have a human rights dialogue with Vietnam (other countries are the USA, the EU, Switzerland and Norway). Launched in 2002 and held alternately in Canberra and Hanoi, the dialogue is now in its 13th round. Yet after almost 15 years of dialogue, Vietnam has made little effort towards progress.
“The human rights dialogue is an accepted policy tool, and its existence is not in question” said Võ Văn Ái. “But it can only be effective if it is a two way process. We are concerned that Vietnam is using the dialogue as a smoke-screen to mask its continuing human rights abuses, with no real intention to make improvements on the ground”.
The recent adoption of extensive restrictive legislation – and new laws coming up for debate in the National Assembly – shows clearly that Vietnam’s aim is not to protect or uphold human rights, but to establish a coercive legal framework to suppress free expression and restrict the exercise of individual rights.
The Criminal Code, amended in November 2015, fails to remove vaguely-worded “national security” offences as demanded by the international community and Vietnamese civil society. These include political crimes such as “conducting propaganda against the state”, “activities aimed to overthrow the people’s administration”, “undermining national solidarity”, or “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon national interests”.
On the contrary, punishment for “Crimes of Infringing upon National Security” (Chapter XIII of the amended Criminal Code) is reinforced. New provisions give prison sentences of six months to five years for the extremely vague notion of “preparing to commit” offences listed in this chapter (the word “ chuẩn bị” (prepare) in Vietnamese could be interpreted as anything from making actual preparations to simply having thoughts or ideas). In addition, the Code includes a new crime of “terrorist activities aimed at opposing the people’s administration” which is punishable by death, as well as a whole new chapter on crimes concerning the Internet. (The amended Criminal Code was to come into force in July 2016, but had been delayed until July 2017 because of multiple errors in the text).
In April 2016 alone, Vietnam adopted a “Law on Access to Information” which is inconsistent with international standards of transparency and accountability; an amended “Press Law” which increases restrictions on freedom of expression, and maintains the ban on independent media and a free press; Ministry of Public Security Circular 13 which empowers Police to suppress demonstrations outside Courts and arrest human rights defenders protesting unfair trials or expressing solidarity with fellow activists. A Law on Associations is also in preparation which is deeply flawed and violates the right to freedom of association.
Freedom of religion or belief is seriously threatened in Vietnam. A new Law on Belief and Religion will soon be adopted by the National Assembly which will impose severe controls on the right to freedom of religion and belief. VCHR called on Australia to use the dialogue to press Vietnam to withdraw the present draft (No. 5/c), and work on a new draft in conformity with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Members of religious communities, especially those not recognized by the State, are the target of continuous harassments. VCHR described repression against the independent Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), and the situation of UBCV Patriarch Thích Quảng Độ , who is in poor health as a result of decades of detention and house arrest. UBCV Deputy Leader Thích Thanh Quang in Danang and Buddhist Youth Movement leader Lê Công Cầu in Huế have been subjected to harassments, interrogations and travel restrictions. Both men were prevented from travelling to Ho Chi Minh City in May 2016 to meet a delegation of Australian diplomats inquiring into the situation of the UBCV.
VCHR urged Australia to press Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release Thích Quảng Độ, lift all constraints, surveillance and Police controls and allow him full freedom of religious activity. Australia should call upon Vietnam to recognize the legal status of the UBCV and all other religious bodies who cannot or choose not to register with the state. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt declared during his visit to Vietnam in July 2014, the autonomy of religious organizations is the litmus test for religious freedom in Vietnam.