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Out of sight, out of mind : Vietnamese civil society is excluded from the ASEM 5 People’s Forum in Hanoi

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Civil society representatives from Europe and Asia are gathering in Hanoi from 6-9 September 2004 for the Fifth Asia Europe (ASEM) People’s Forum to examine the challenges facing the ASEM process and make recommendations to the official ASEM Summit to be held in Hanoi on 8-9 October 2004. The official ASEM Summit will be attended by the 25 European Union member states, China, Japan, South Korea and 10 ASEAN states, including Cambodia, Laos and probably Burma. The EU initially opposed Burma’s participation because of lack of progress towards democracy and human rights, but a solution seems to have been recently brokered, and Burma is expected to send low-level representative to the Summit.

The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights warmly welcomes this strong presence of European and Asian human rights defenders and democrats in the Vietnamese capital for the very first time. However, it deeply regrets that the ASEM 5 People’s Forum takes place in a country where people’s rights are denied, and where civil society is outlawed and repressed by the one-Party state.

The Forum, organized jointly by an international and national organizing committee, is presented as an opportunity for European and Asian NGOs to “dialogue and exchange with Vietnamese civil society”. But the Forum’s Vietnamese organizer is the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO), the Communist Party’s official agency in charge of international relations. VUFO has announced that it will mobilize the participation of “mass organizations”, i.e. GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations) and members of the Communist Party’s Fatherland Front.

“Vietnamese civil society will have no voice at the Forum”, said VCHR President Vo Van Ai. “The real proponents of civil society – the ordinary men and women who are calling for peaceful democratic development and the enjoyment of human rights – are subjected to intimidation, surveillance and arrest in Vietnam today”. He released a list of prominent civil society advocates, including Buddhistss Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do, Thich Thien Minh, dissidents Nguyen Dan Que, Pham Que Duong, Tran Khue, Hoang Minh Chinh, Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Khac Toan and Nguyen Vu Binh whose voices will not be heard at the ASEM 5 People’s Forum (enclosed).

Mr. Ai also condemned the restrictive conditions under which this Forum is organized. In all previous ASEM Summits in Bangkok (1996), London (1998), Seoul (2000) and Copenhagen (2002), the People’s Forum has been held parallel to the official ASEM meeting to enable NGOs to meet government delegates and draw media attention to their concerns. Vietnam is the first host country to impose the separation of the two events. “By holding the ASEM 5 People’s Forum one month before the Summit, the Vietnamese authorities are deliberately seeking to prevent exchanges between civil society and governments, and deprive NGOs of the important media access they would have enjoyed during the Summit. At the same time, Hanoi is aiming to minimize media focus on Vietnam’s grave human rights abuses”, he said.

The Forum will debate issues such as : the media and democracy, the role of ethnic and religious groups, the rule of law, the role of civil society movements and their relationship with governments, how to implement UN human rights treaties etc… “How can Vietnamese civil society contribute to this debate when their government denies them the right to a free press, represses ethnic Montagnards, independent Buddhists and other religious movements, imprisons cyber-dissidents and civil society advocates, and fails to implement key UN human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights to which it acceded over two decades ago, in September 1982 ?” said Mr. Ai.

The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights recalls that Vietnam, as an ASEM member and host of the Fifth ASEM Summit, has a binding commitment to uphold the principles of the ASEM process. These include fostering trade and economic cooperation, but also promoting human rights, good governance and democracy. As the 1998 Resolution of the European Parliament on ASEM affirms, “sustainable trade, investment and economic development cannot be achieved in the absence of the development of democracy, the rule of law, civil society and human rights”.

On the occasion of the ASEM 5 People’s Forum, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights calls on the Vietnamese government to :

1) lift all restrictions on the freedom of expression, opinion, association and information, and respect the right of Vietnamese civil society to freely and openly organise themselves and form independent NGOs ;

2) immediately and unconditionally release all Vietnamese citizens detained in prison or under house arrest for their peaceful advocacy of human rights, social justice and democratic reforms, in particular Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, Venerable Thich Quang Do, Thich Thien Minh, Nguyen Dan Que, Nguyen Khac Toan, Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Vu Binh, Nguyen Dinh Huy ;

3) authorize the publication of independent, privately-run newspapers. Prominent dissidents such as Lt.-General Tran Do and Thich Quang Do applied to set up independent journals, but their requests were refused ;

4) re-establish the legitimate status of non-recognized religious movements, which constitute Vietnam’s largest civil society components. The authorities should return the network of schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, humanitarian institutions and pagodas confiscated from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, and allow the UBCV to re-open these institutions for the welfare of the Vietnamese people.

Twenty-three sample cases of detained Vietnamese civil society advocates

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