Updated in December 2013 – All updates are in bold
Since the last periodic review in 2009, increasing popular activity in exercising fundamental human rights has met with intensifying government human rights violations. A now on-going process of amendment of Vietnam’s constitution, while including an enhanced rhetorical commitment to human rights, appears likely to fall far short of ensuring promotion and protection of fundamental human rights.
Freedom of Expression, Information, Assembly and Movement
The authorities systematically suppress freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. During its previous UPR, Vietnam had accepted a recommendation to “work to ensure key pieces of national legislation, including the 1999 Penal Code, are consistent with its international human rights treaty commitments.” But the Penal Code still contains vaguely-worded national security and other legal provisions, as mentioned below.
The government does not allow independent or privately owned media outlets to operate. It exerts strict control over radio and TV stations and written publications. Criminal penalties apply to those who disseminate materials deemed to oppose the government, threaten national security, reveal state secrets or promote "reactionary" ideas.
The government blocks access to politically sensitive websites and requires internet cafe owners to monitor and store information about users’ online activities. The authorities or those believed to be acting on their behalf frequently attempt to shut down, block or hack bloggers’ websites.
Vietnamese citizens are increasingly well-informed about the country’s problems. This has led to a dynamic expansion of critical but overwhelmingly constructive commentary, almost entirely predicated on non-violence, expressed via digital and other media, questioning official policies, exposing official corruption, protesting land-grabbing, practicing religious beliefs in unauthorized ways, or calling for democratic alternatives to one-party rule. The government has responded with repression, including by expanding its legal assault on expression of opinion via the internet. Enhancing already extensive government powers to punish and otherwise deter digital freedom, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on September 1, 2013, put into force Decree 72, which contains provisions legalizing content-filtering and censorship, and outlawing vaguely defined “prohibited acts.” On November 13, he signed Decree 174, imposing fines on people who post “propaganda against the state” or “reactionary ideology” on social media channels like Facebook.
In response,activists have simply redoubled their efforts, while new voices and networks dedicated to the promotion of human rights and peaceful political change continue to emerge.
Authorities arbitrarily arrest those deemed dissidents and hold them incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits, subject them to torture, and prosecute them in politically controlled courts that hand out long prison sentences for violating vaguely-worded national security and other legal provisions, such as penal code articles 79, 87, 88, 89, 91, and 258.In applying the elastic provisions of these and other laws, the courts preside over trials that fail to meet international fair trial standards.
The government is currently intensifying its routine practice of imposing long prison sentences, house arrest, “re-education” centresor involuntarily commitment to mental health institutions on people for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, including by calling for the creation of a multi-party democracy in Vietnam. An escalation in political imprisonment is clear and worsening. The numbers sentenced in political trials have increased every year since 2010. In 2012, the figure was at least 40. In the first five months of 2013, it was at least 50, marking a sharp intensification of government attacks on critics. By late November, the total convicted in 2013 had reached at least 63. Examples include Pham Nguyen Thanh Binh, who was sentenced on April 17, 2013 to three years’ imprisonment plus three years’ probation for writing and posting to the internet articles commenting negatively on government leadership and management; one young student, Dinh Nguyen Kha was sentenced on May 16, 2013 to eight in jail, followed by three years’ probation each, for distributing leaflets critical of state policies, although the prison sentence was later reduced on appeal to four years. Those convicted also included prominent human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan, sentenced on October 2 to 30 months in prison on trumped-up charges of tax evasion. New arrests have also been carried out. On May 26, 2013, the police detained blogger Truong Duy Nhat and charged him under article 258 of the penal code with “abusing democracy and freedom rights to infringe upon the interests of the state.”
Legal and other provisions severely restrict exercise of the right to freedom of assembly. The authorities use requirements to seek official approval for public gatherings to prevent and punish any meeting, march or protest they deem politically or otherwise unacceptable. Such measures are applied to those wishing to question government domestic and foreign policies, demonstrate against alleged land-grabbing, carry out strikes in state-owned and private industries demanding better pay and conditions.
On May 5, 2013, authorities in three Vietnamese cities intervened with violence, temporary arrests, and concerted harassment to prevent and break up peaceful “human rights picnics” at which youthful bloggers and activists planned to disseminate and discuss the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights standards.
The government has repeatedly prevented critics from making trips outside Vietnam, citing “national security reasons.” On May 10, 2013, Huynh Ngoc Chenh, the 2013 winner of Reporters without Borders Netizen of the Year Award, was prevented from leaving Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to fly to the United States.
Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Death in Detention
On November 7, the government signed the UN Convention Against Torture, but has yet to ratify it.
Police brutality in all regions of Vietnam, including torture in detention and fatal beating, has been reported by official media and credible unofficial sources. In some cases, detainees died after beatings inflicted while they were in the custody of the police, such as the death of Ngo Thanh Kieu in May, Nguyen Manh Son in June and Nguyen Mau Thuan in August 2012. On May 29, 2013, Nguyen Van Duc died in the custody of the police of Vinh Long province. An autopsy reported that he died from “brain bleeding with cracks on his skull, crushed right brain, blood-clotted left brain, two broken ribs and broken sternum.”
In other instances, victims were killed in public areas when police used what appears to have been excessive force. In some cases, police officers who caused the death of those held in detention were prosecuted and convicted, such as in the case of Nguyen Manh Son. But these are rare and in general police have impunity for their actions.
Numerous sources also paint a credible picture describing a pattern according to which prisoners imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their basic human rights are targeted by imposition of conditions of detention amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including intentional deprivation of medical care for prisoners who are seriously ill, such as political prisoners Ho Thi Bich Khuong and Do Thi Minh Hanh, as well as Hoa Hao Buddhist activist Mai Thi Dung and in some cases elderly and frail, such as Nguyen Huu Cau, a political prisoner since 1982.
Right to a Fair Trial
During its previous UPR, Vietnam noted a recommendation to “provide people detained under security or propaganda laws with…representation by legal counsel and a public trial,” stating this pertained to already implemented measures. This is rarely the case in practice. Vietnamese courts continue to lack the independence and impartiality required by international law. Where the party or government has an interest in the outcome, judges are instructed and trial outcomes are not determined by the facts or law. Trials are commonly marred by procedural and other irregularities committed in order to achieve the politically pre-determined outcome.
The practice of law to vigorously defend human rights remains hazardous for those who attempt it, sometimes resulting in detention on trumped-up charges, as in the above-mentioned case of lawyer Le Quoc Quan Vietnam’s Bar Association is subject to official political interference and restrictions to deter people from entering the profession, leading to a lack of lawyers. In cases deemed political or otherwise sensitive, the authorities apply legal and bureaucratic provisions arbitrarily to prevent prompt and proper access to their clients and the evidence against them.
Restrictions on observation of political trials by family members, human rights defenders, the media, diplomats and others often effectively mean the right to a public trial is breached. Attempts by bloggers and others deemed politically dangerous by the authorities to observe and report on political trials are regularly thwarted by police and other security forces, and by sometimes violent obstructive tactics conducted by vigilante or other elements operating on behalf of the authorities.
Forced Labor, Labor Rights and Land Rights
Laws and regulations in force continue to authorize large-scale administrative detention without trial and the imposition of forced labor upon drug users and alleged drug users without any due process for so-called “labor therapy.” The growing number of people held reached more than 40,000 in 2012. Some 123 centers across the country hold people, including children, pursuant to this regime, which is not subject to any form of due process or judicial oversight. It is characterized by severe ill-treatment and forced cultivation and processing of agricultural and other products.
The government bans all unions and other labor organizations except those it authorizes, creating a situation in which most of the hundreds of strikes occurring annually are illegal.
Current law, policy and practices enable involuntary evictions of people enjoying land tenure. Forced evictions have led to violent confrontations between people alleging violation of their land rights and the authorities.
Freedom of Religion
During its previous UPR in 2009, Vietnam noted a recommendation to “Step up efforts to ensure the full respect of freedom of religion and worship, including by reviewing laws,” stating this pertained to already implemented measures.
However the government restricts religious freedom through legislation and registration requirements and by harassing and intimidating unsanctioned religious groups. Reinforcing previous powers, government Decree No 92, which entered into force on January 1, 2013, prohibits “manipulation of freedom of belief and religion” to “conduct propaganda against the state” or “undermine … national unity.” The inclusion of onerous requirements for official permission to practice religious belief and vague prohibitions on expression effectively allow the authorities to selectively prohibit any religious activities they desire, reinforcing their practice of repeatedly targeting religious groups deemed politically subversive or otherwise undesirable. These include Catholic groups in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nghe An province; Protestant and Catholic groups among “national minorities” in upland areas of central and northern Vietnam and other locations, including Montagnard Christians, the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church, certain Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups and certain congregations among Khmer Krom Theravada Buddhists in the Mekong Delta.
The National Assembly on November 28 adopted a set of government-approved amendments to the Constitution. Disappointing advocates of human rights and general political and economic reform, the amended constitution strengthened the Vietnam Communist Party’s monopoly of control over the state, society, and security forces and -- despite an increased rhetorical commitment to human rights -- left serious loopholes in place that undermined effective rights protection. In particular, Article 14 provides that human rights guarantees contained in other passages can be legally restricted where needed for reasons of national defense, national security or order, the security of society and social morality—all grounds subject to sweeping and politicized interpretation in Vietnam, in violation of the international requirement that such limitations must be no greater than what isnecessary in a democratic society for the pursuit of aims that are legitimate in human rights terms.
The government had invited public comments on amending the constitution, but it had retaliated against some critics and democracy activists who have done so.
Key Recommendations to the Government of Vietnam
These negative developments highlight the continued validity of the following recommendations, particularly in light of the General Assembly's November 12, 2013 election to the Human Rights Council, membership of which comes with an obligation to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
· Release all people imprisoned, detained, or placed under house arrest, administrative detention, or involuntary commitment to mental hospitals or Social Protection Centers for the peaceful expression of political or religious beliefs, for exercise of socio-economic or cultural rights, or for promoting or protecting the rights of journalists, lawyers, bloggers, religious believers, workers and other persons exercising their rights. It should also drop all charges against and put a stop to harassment or intimidation of all such people.
· End criminalization of peaceful dissent, including by amending or repealing domestic laws and other texts that effectively outlaw such dissent and certain religious activities on the basis of imprecisely defined “national security” crimes, notably penal code articles 79, 87, 88, 89, 91, and 258 and Decrees 72 and 174
· Abolish all legal justifications for forced labor and detention without trial for so-called “labor therapy” and instead bring forth legislation creating voluntary, evidence-based health and social services in the community that respect human rights of drug users.
· Repeal the Ordinance on Religion, Decree 92 and other legislation that enable authorities to prevent independent religious organizations from freely conducting peaceful religious activities, in accordance with international legal standards.
· Adopt legislation authorizing the publication of independent, privately-run newspapers and magazines, while removing filtering, surveillance, and other restrictions on internet usage, dropping pending decrees aimed at controlling the internet in violation of human rights and replacing them by regulations that are consistent with international human rights standards.
· Adopt legislation recognizing independent labor unions and ensure that regulation of public gatherings and demonstration, including those raising grievances about land issues and corruption, is done in conformity with international human rights norms.
· Drop all provisions that make possible land confiscation without due process, just compensation, and independent and impartial means of review.
· Ratify the Convention Against Torture and its Optional Protocol; the ILO Forced Labour Convention; the Conventions relating to the Status of Refugees and the Status of Stateless Persons; the Rome Statute; and the Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons.
· Issue a standing invitation to all special procedures of the HRC.
Paragraph 99.11, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Viet Nam, Universal Periodic Review, 5 October 2009, A/HRC/12/11: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/163/82/PDF/G0916382.pdf.
Penal Code, Article 79.- Carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration
Those who carry out activities, establish or join organizations with intent to overthrow the people’s administration shall be subject to the following penalties:
1. Organizers, instigators and active participants or those who cause serious consequences shall be sentenced to between twelve and twenty years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment;
2. Other accomplices shall be subject to between five and fifteen years of imprisonment.
For 2013 cases using this provision, see https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/09/vietnam-release-convicted-activists.
Penal Code, Article 87.- Undermining the unity policy
1. Those who commits one of the following acts with a view to opposing the people’s administration shall be sentenced to between five and fifteen years of imprisonment:
a) Sowing division among people of different strata, between people and the armed forces or the people’s administration or social organizations;
b) Sowing hatred, ethnic bias and/or division, infringing upon the rights to equality among the community of Vietnamese nationalities;
c) Sowing division between religious people and non-religious people, division between religious believers and the people’s administration or social organizations;
d) Undermining the implementation of policies for international solidarity.
2. In case of committing less serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between two and seven years of imprisonment.
Penal Code, Article 88.- Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
1. Those who commit one of the following acts against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shall be sentenced to between three and twelve years of imprisonment:
a) Propagating against, distorting and/or defaming the people’s administration;
b) Propagating psychological warfare and spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among people;
c) Making, storing and/or circulating documents and/or cultural products with contents against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
2. In the case of committing less serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between ten and twenty years of imprisonment.
For 2013 cases using this provision, see Human Rights Watch, Vietnam: Drop Charges for Leafleting, 15 May 2013: https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/15/vietnam-drop-charges-leafleting.
Penal Code, Article 89.- Disrupting security
1. Those who intend to oppose the people’s administration by inciting, involving and gathering many people to disrupt security, oppose officials on public duties, obstruct activities of agencies and/or organizations, which fall outside the cases stipulated in Article 82 of this Code, shall be sentenced to between five and fifteen years of imprisonment.
2. Other accomplices shall be sentenced to between two and seven years of imprisonment.
Penal Code, Article 91.- Fleeing abroad or defecting to stay overseas with a view to opposing the people’s administration
1. Those who flee abroad or defect overseas with a view to opposing the people’s administration shall be sentenced to between three and twelve years of imprisonment.
2. Organizers, coercers and instigators shall be sentenced to between five and fifteen years of imprisonment.
3. In the case of committing particularly serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between twelve and twenty years of imprisonment or life imprisonment.
Penal Code, Article 258.- Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens
1. Those who abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens, shall be subject to warning, non-custodial reform for up to three years or a prison term of between six months and three years.
2. Committing the offense in serious circumstances, the offenders shall be sentenced to between two and seven years of imprisonment.
Paragraph 101.1, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Viet Nam, Universal Periodic Review, 5 October 2009, A/HRC/12/11: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/163/82/PDF/G0916382.pdf.
Paragraph 101.4, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Viet Nam, Universal Periodic Review, 5 October 2009, A/HRC/12/11: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/163/82/PDF/G0916382.pdf.