Vietnam's Communist Party's Politburo Member and Chairman of the Propaganda and Education Committee Dinh The Huynh speaks at a news conference of the 12th National Congress of the Party at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on January 18, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(New York) – Vietnam’s Communist Party should use its twelfth National Congress to announce that free and fair elections will be held to elect the country’s leaders, Human Rights Watch said today. Vietnam’s donors, who regularly call for free and fair elections in countries such as Burma and Cambodia, should publicly call for pluralistic elections in Vietnam and an end to one-party rule.

The Communist Party Congress is scheduled to meet from January 21-January 28 in Hanoi. 1,510 party officials will elect the new Central Committee of the Party which, in turn, will select the top leaders of the country at many levels. Formally, the rubber stamp National Assembly then elects the President and Prime Minister.

“The future of more than 90 million Vietnamese should not be decided by a small group of communist party officials,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Vietnam should finally adhere to its international legal commitments and allow an election by its citizens instead of yet another selection by the ruling party.”

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Vietnam ratified in 1982, states that citizens have the right to “take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and to “vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

The Communist Party stage manages elections for the National Assembly every five years. Genuine opposition parties are not allowed to organize or contest elections. The Communist Party dominates this process and only tolerates token candidates who are not members of the party.

Article 4 of Vietnam’s constitution formally gives the Communist Party the right to rule the country, stating that it is, “the Vanguard of the working class, concurrently the vanguard of the laboring people and Vietnamese nation, faithfully representing the interests of the working class, laboring people and entire nation, and acting upon the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and Ho Chi Minh Thought, is the force leading the State and society.” Efforts in 2013 to amend this provision to allow for multi-party pluralism not only failed but resulted in key changes to strengthen the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, further narrowing the legal space to exercise the right to pluralistic and freely contested elections.

With a monopoly on power, the Communist Party operates as a de facto government, controlling the country through a battery of broad and vague provisions in its penal code and other laws to silence and imprison critics and those calling for democracy.

Human Rights Watch called on the party congress to make commitments to improve the country’s dismal human rights situation, including repeal of laws that allow peaceful critics to be turned into political prisoners. In November 2015, Vietnam passed a revised penal code which included provisions aimed at silencing bloggers and rights activists. The same month the public security minister, General Tran Dai Quang, reported to the National Assembly that from June 2012 until November 2015 the police had arrested 2,680 people who for unspecified national security offenses and targeted more than 60 groups promoting democracy and human rights.

Arrests of activists have continued. An illustrative recent case is the December 2015 arrest of prominent rights campaigner Nguyen Van Dai, who was charged him with “conducting propaganda against the state.” Nguyen Van Dai’s fellow activist Le Thu Ha was also arrested the same day on an unknown charge. Nguyen Van Dai, 46, is a human rights lawyer who supported the formation of many rights groups including the Vietnam Independent Union and the pro-democracy 8406 Bloc in 2006. He was arrested in March 2007 and sentenced to five years imprisonment. In November 2007, the appeal court reduced his sentence to four years. Nguyen Van Dai received the prestigious Hellman Hammett award in 2007. Despite intrusive police surveillance and harassment, in April 2013, Nguyen Van Dai helped found Brotherhood for Democracy “to defend human rights recognized by the Vietnam Constitution and international Conventions” and “to promote the building of a democratic, progressive, civilized and just society for Vietnam.” In May 2014, thugs assaulted and injured him when he was chatting with fellow activists in a café.

Ten days prior to his recent arrest, Nguyen Van Dai and three other fellow activists were attacked and beaten in Nghe An province by a group of about 20 men in civilian clothes wearing surgical masks to hide their identity. Earlier that day, Nguyen Van Dai had given a talk about the constitution and human rights. On the morning of the arrest, he was supposed to meet with representatives from the EU delegation who were in Vietnam to hold a bilateral human rights dialogue with Vietnam.

“The recent arrest of a human rights defenders like Nguyen Van Dai shows that reform remains elusive,” said Adams. “The party congress is a chance to show the Vietnamese people that the country is ready to modernize instead of remaining mired in one-party rule which suffocates free expression and aspirations for democracy. It is time for Vietnam to bring its laws into compliance with its international human rights commitments, not just with the interests of the Communist Party.”