Twenty-five years after the reunification of Vietnam, the country remains under the close control of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Increasingly though, recent years have seen a progressive opening up of the country to the international community and a quickening pace of economic and social change. These years have also seen improvements in human rights, with the release of tens of thousands of political detainees and re-education camp inmates, the return of thousands of Vietnamese who had fled abroad as refugees, and increased willingness on the part of the government to cooperate with the U.N. on human rights issues.
At the same time, significant human rights problems remain. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam retains a decidedly anachronistic emphasis on suppressing those groups and individuals that it perceives as a political threat. Authorities continue to take strong action against those who criticize the Party or speak out in favor of pluralism and democratic change. These include, in particular, high-ranking dissidents from within the CPV, long-time critics from the academic community, members of the press, and religious leaders whom the government fears may be able to attract large followings. Such individuals are less frequently imprisoned than in the past. Instead they are subjected to less overt forms of harassment and intimidation, including constant surveillance and severe controls on their freedom of movement or ability to work. The threat of imprisonment remains real for those who go too far in challenging the Party's authority.
The government's continuing anxiety in the face of dissent is, in part, a response to the pressures caused by opening up the economy to foreign investment in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It also reflects a broader concern on the part of the Party's leadership to protect its political power, and the access to privileges and wealth that this brings. Tensions have been further exacerbated by the recent economic downturn, which seriously affected Vietnam as well as other countries in Asia, and a fractious debate within CPV leadership circles about the need to tackle corruption and whether to introduce new social and economic reforms.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1982, Vietnam has a treaty obligation to respect and promote the rights set out in the Covenant. Increasingly, the government has shown itself willing to engage with the relevant institutions of the U.N. in order to address certain of these rights: this is to be greatly welcomed and encouraged. It has accepted a significant monitoring and aid presence by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to facilitate the return and resettlement of refugees. The government has also permitted visits to Vietnam by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, although in both cases these visits were carried out under close government supervision, access was limited, and the Vietnamese government subsequently repudiated the U.N. experts' findings. Prisoners held on account of their political or religious opinions continue to be among those released in presidential amnesties, as in September and November 1998, when twenty-four political and religious prisoners were released.
Despite these positive developments, the government's performance continues to fall far short of the standards required under the ICCPR. Freedom of expression, free association and other basic rights are still severely constrained, and those who criticize the government, establish independent political organizations, adhere to particular religious groups, or seek to monitor and report on human rights continue to be imprisoned or subjected to other forms of harassment and intimidation at the hands of the state.
The government's present strategy towards its critics appears to be to isolate, harass, and place them under heavy surveillance rather than to imprison them, thereby drawing less international condemnation. Several key critics of the regime remain under house arrest or, in the case of Buddhist dissidents, confined to their pagodas. Other dissidents and former political prisoners are refused residence permits and are prohibited from traveling, while neither they, nor war veterans, religious leaders, or workers are allowed to form independent organizations that could compete with party-controlled mass organizations.
Public opposition within the Vietnamese Communist Party is also discouraged. The expulsion from the Party of Vietnam's highest-ranking dissident, Tran Do, a former general, in January 1999 set an example for others, as did official directives issued in May 1999 that prohibit Party members from issuing statements critical of the Party.
The government also continues to use existing laws, and to pass new ones, which contravene the standards laid down in the ICCPR and other international human rights norms. Legislation remains in force that authorizes surveillance of released prisoners convicted of national security offenses and the arbitrary "administrative detention" of anyone suspected of threatening national security, with no need for prior court authorization.
Vietnam's domestic media remains under strict state control. A new press law passed in May 1999 effectively encourages media self-censorship by requiring journalists to pay compensation or publish retractions not only for inaccurate stories but for all writing deemed to violate the "honor of any organization or the dignity of any individual." Critics consequently have few sanctioned outlets for independent expression. Communication among dissidents and between them and the outside world is hampered by interception of mail, blockage of telephone lines, and suspension of Internet accounts. When dissidents do speak out in criticism of the Party or call for democratic reforms, they are subject to interrogation by officials and heightened monitoring of their activities.
Despite these ongoing concerns, there can be little doubt that important human rights improvements have occurred in Vietnam in recent years. During the first fifteen years after re-unification, the country's prisons and re-education camps were filled with thousands of real and perceived opponents of the government. The great majority of these have since been released but some remain - precisely how many, Human Rights Watch is unable to estimate with accuracy. The true number of those still being held in prison, house arrest or other forms of detention or restriction as critics or opponents of the government, or because of their religious opinions, is known only to the government.
This twenty-fifth anniversary of the country's reunification offers an important opportunity for the Vietnamese government to reaffirm its commitment to human rights, and its treaty obligations under the ICCPR. Accordingly, Human Rights Watch urges the government to release unconditionally all those currently being imprisoned, detained or restricted on account of their peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression or belief and to take other steps necessary to bring Vietnam's law and practice into full conformity with its international human rights obligations. Human Rights Watch also urges the international community, notably the governments of countries enjoying close diplomatic, trade or other relations with Vietnam, to support such reforms.