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Report by the UN Human Rights Council on Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review: Vietnam Rejects UN Recommendations for Concrete Reforms to Advance Human Rights

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GENEVA, 13 May 2009 (VIETNAM COMMITTEE) – The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights expresses deep disappointment at the report of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Vietnam issued by the UN Human Rights Council’s UPR Working Group on Tuesday, 12th May 2009. Whilst accepting some general recommendations on the promotion of human rights, Vietnam rejected many of the concrete proposals made by UN member states for specific measures and reforms to advance human rights.

Recommendations on a wide range of issues were made by a host of countries, including Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom, the United States etc. Some of the recommendations rejected by Vietnam are;

a) Freedom of Expression and the Press: Increase the independence of the media from the State; authorize independent and privately-run media; lift restrictions on Blogs and the Internet, such as filtering and surveillance; allow the press to play a “watch-dog” role in society; amend the Penal Code to ensure it cannot be used to prevent freedom of expression; release all prisoners of conscience detained for the exercise of free expression; invite the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to visit Vietnam;

b) Freedom of Religion: Recognize the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and allow it to function independently of the [State-sponsored] Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, and recognize Hoa Hao and Cao Dai faiths; speed up registration of Churches and resolve property disputes; invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief to visit Vietnam;

c) Rule of Law: Abolish vague “national security” provisions in the Penal Code, including Article 88 on “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” and Article 258 on “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the State”; establish a list of all prisoners detained under national security provisions and make this list public; cease using national security laws to limit public discussion on multi-party democracy or criticism of the government; abolish Ordinance 44 which authorizes administrative detention without trial under house arrest or in psychiatric facilities for suspected national security offenders;

d) Human Rights Defenders: recognize the legitimate rights of individuals and groups to promote human rights and express their opinions and dissent publicly; disseminate the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in Vietnam; engage a dialogue between the government and independent civil society organisations;

e) Death Penalty: increase transparency, provide statistics on death sentences and executions (such statistics are currently classified as “State secrets” in Vietnam); move towards abolition of the death penalty.

Other recommendations rejected by Vietnam include establishing an independent national human rights institution, and extending a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures to visit Vietnam. Several countries, including France, deplored that Vietnam had not invited any UN observers since 1998, when the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance issued a critical report on his visit. Vietnam declared then that the government would never again “accept any individuals or organizations coming to investigate religious freedom or human rights”. Six UN Special Procedures have pending requests to visit Vietnam.

Regarding several recommendations on reviewing restrictive laws on religious freedom, the right to a public trial, the adoption of a “whistle-blower” law to protect journalists reporting on corruption from prosecution or harassment, Vietnam declared that these measures “are currently implemented” – although it provided no information as to how this implementation is ensured.

“Vietnam’s rejection of these concrete measures reflects its fundamental hostility to the advancement of individual freedoms and human rights in Vietnam, and its systematic attempt to politicise the UPR process” said Vo Van Ai, President of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.

Serious human rights concerns raised by member states during the UPR review on Friday, he noted, had been rejected by Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh, head of the Vietnamese delegation as “unfounded reports” and “allegations of ill will about democracy and human rights in Vietnam”. Similarly, specific questions on torture, women’s rights, arbitrary detention, abuse of the freedoms of expression, association and religion were dismissed by high-level officials from the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Information and Communications, Government Committee for Religious Affairs and Ministry of Public Security. The officials simply read out pre-prepared statements categorically stating that there are no political prisoners, no torture, no religious repression, no arbitrary detention and no suppression of free expression in Vietnam.

Moreover, 15 UN members including the Czech Republic, which holds the current EU Presidency, were excluded from speaking at the UPR review. On behalf of these countries, Ireland formally expressed “sincere disappointment that the UPR, which is supposed to be a process based on the principle of equality, is excluding some countries from speaking”. The 4-hour debate was in fact swamped by members such as North Korea, China, Russia, Cuba, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe and others who used their speaking time to praise Vietnam’s human rights record, or invoke Vietnam’s “historic specificities” to justify its restrictions of political and civil rights. In the UPR report, they recommended that Vietnam “share its best practices” on human rights protection with fellow member states.

“Vietnam’s UPR review raises serious concerns, not only about Vietnam’s performance, but about the UPR process as a whole”, said Vo Van Ai. “For example, NGO input, which is supposedly an essential element of the UPR, was conspicuously absent from the process”. Issues raised in the NGO “stakeholders report” compiled by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were not addressed during the review unless they were specifically taken up by states, he said, nor were they mentioned in the final report. Moreover, Vietnam’s country report was prepared without any consultation with independent civil society, only “mass organizations” such as the Vietnam Fatherland Front, controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam.

“The aim of the UPR as a state-driven process is to advance human rights among member states through constructive dialogue and cooperation”, said Mr. Ai. “This may be effective for states that already have a democratic process. But for non-democratic countries such as Vietnam, the UPR is a failure. Instead of engaging Vietnam to make concrete reforms, it has given a “cover” of impunity to the Hanoi regime”.

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