April 27, 2016
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
As you prepare for your visit to Vietnam next month, we write to highlight key human rights concerns that we urge you to raise in public and private with the Vietnamese authorities.
As you know, Vietnam’s government remains among the most repressive in the world. Basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly are extremely limited. The media and Internet are controlled and censored. The Vietnamese Communist Party controls all public institutions and uses them to maintain its hold on power. Genuine elections do not take place; those being held in May for the National Assembly are a form of political theater. The courts are party organs and lack independence. Similarly, independent trade unions are not permitted.
In short, Vietnam is a police state. In our view, the main priority of the leaders you will meet is to maintain their party’s hold on power. It is noteworthy in this regard that Vietnam’s new president, General Tran Dai Quang, is the former head of the country’s notorious Ministry of Public Security. The fact that Vietnam’s Politburo chose Quang to be president indicates a great deal about their priorities.
There are many human rights issues that you could raise during your visit, including freedom of speech and assembly, political prisoners, and labor rights, among other topics. We outline these topics below in the appendix to this letter.
But just as important as the specific issues raised is the overall message that you deliver, and how you deliver it. We believe your activities during the recent visit to Cuba set a good example for your upcoming trip: meetings with former political prisoners, dissidents, and activists; a joint press conference with the country’s leader in which you both answer questions from independent journalists; and public speeches aimed at the general public that make it clear that developments in the relationship between the two countries depend on the Vietnamese government undertaking major reforms to improve basic rights. What you say and do while in Vietnam, we believe, could lead to short- and long-term progress on key issues, not least because it will play into an ongoing – if repressed – debate in Vietnam about the direction of the country.
Many in Vietnam are looking to you and the United States to stand up for the ideals they are taking great risks to promote. We urge you to explicitly articulate that the United States stands with brave activists and the broader public in their struggle to obtain basic freedoms. We hope you will make it clear that the United States expects its partners to create an environment in which independent-minded people and organizations can thrive and where the law is used to protect – rather than repress – its citizens.
Vietnam’s government needs to hear clearly from the United States that while a closer diplomatic relationship is possible, the promotion and protection of internationally recognized human rights standards – many of which Vietnam has pledged to uphold but in practice ignores – is necessary. If those steps are not taken, the United States government will be constrained by Congress and public opinion in its ability to forge closer economic, military, and security ties with Vietnam.
Thank you for your consideration and we look forward to discussing these matters further with your staff.
Appendix: Key Human Rights Issues
Vietnam’s prisons currently hold over 100 known political prisoners. As you know, the Vietnam government typically views those who advocate for democracy and human rights as criminals and threats to national security. The government uses a series of vague and draconian laws to selectively silence critics and dissidents.
At the end of this appendix is a list of the publicly known cases. However, the total number is likely larger. In November 2015, Vietnam’s current president, General Tran Dai Quang – then the Minister of Public Security – publicly reported to Vietnam’s National Assembly that from June 2012 until then, “the police [had] received, arrested, and dealt with 1,410 cases involving 2,680 people who violated national security.” During this period, he said, “opposition persons” had “illegally established more than 60 groups and organizations in the name of democracy and human rights, which have about 350 participants from 50 cities and provinces.”
We have written to and called for the government to provide details about these cases, but we have received no response.
We have also received reports of arrests of Montagnards in the Central Highlands, but as this area of the country is closed to human rights investigators, it has not been possible to verify the claims. We have, however, been able to interview a regular stream of Montagnards who have fled to Cambodia to escape repression.
In the lead-up to your trip in May, we recommend that you communicate to the government in Hanoi that you intend to raise publicly the issue of political prisoners and mention several by name who you expect to be released unconditionally. You should make it clear that releasing political prisoners and then sending them into exile is not an acceptable practice. And while the release of each political prisoner is a welcome step, we hope you will also make the point that releases alone do not constitute reform.
Beatings and Harassment of Activists and Dissidents
We also urge you to raise concerns, publicly and privately, about the increasing number of cases in which dissidents and human rights defenders have been harassed or subject to violence at the hands of police or plainclothes government personnel. In 2015, Human Rights Watch recorded at least 45 cases of assault against dissidents and human rights defenders, including beatings, threats, and property destruction. Cases have continued in 2016. These appear to be carried out on official orders or official acquiescence as the government finds ways other than widely condemned public trials to silence dissent. The government has also prevented an increasing number of dissidents and human rights defenders from traveling abroad.
In sum, it appears that even as arrests and convictions of dissidents and human rights defenders have decreased, the government has increased harassment, threats, and restrictions on movement against them.
In your public remarks and during any press briefings, we urge you to speak forcefully in support of freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
Vietnam maintains an extremely repressive legal system. Its penal code criminalizes criticism of the government, while various other laws restrict the activities of religious groups, trade unions and federations, nongovernmental organizations, and media. Vietnam has made promises to reform some of these problematic laws, but they remain on the statute books and are used regularly against dissidents and critics.
We urge you to reiterate US concern over stalled reforms and mention specific laws by name — for instance, penal code provisions prohibiting: “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” (penal code article 79, penalty up to death sentence); “undermining national unity policy” (article 87, penalty up to 15 years in prison); “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 88, penalty up to 20 years); “disrupting security” (article 89, penalty up to 15 years); “fleeing abroad or stay[ing] abroad to oppose the people’s government” (article 91, penalty up to life sentence); and “supplemental punishment” (article 92), which strips former prisoners convicted of “national security” crimes of certain rights, puts them on probation for up to five years, and allows confiscation of part or all of their property.
In November 2015, the National Assembly passed a revised penal code that will become effective in July 2016. The revised code includes harsher provisions in a number of articles such as article 109 (originally article 79); article 117 (originally article 88); and article 118 (originally article 89), which has a new clause that states, “The person who takes actions in preparation of committing this crime shall be subject to between one and five years of imprisonment.” Vietnam also uses other articles in the penal code to target peaceful dissent, including “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the State and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and citizens” (article 258), “causing public disorder” (article 245), and charges such as tax evasion. We also ask that you raise concerns with the criminal procedure code, in particular provisions allowing excessive and incommunicado pre-trial detention for alleged national security violations.
As you know, the US-Vietnam Plan for the Enhancement of Trade and Labor Relations requires major reforms to Vietnam’s legal system on labor issues and obliges the government to close administrative detention facilities that use forced labor. More importantly, it requires the government to allow larger labor federations to come into being within five years. If after five years Vietnam has not allowed federations to form, the US can retaliate unilaterally by re-imposing tariffs or suspending ongoing tariff reductions, which could create an incentive for Vietnam to meet the obligation.
However, as we have pointed out previously, the threat of enforcement is not the same thing as enforcement. Because the tariff reductions or suspensions are not automatic, a future US administration may decide not to implement them for a variety of diplomatic or economic reasons. As it is also not clear if and when the TPP may come into force, we urge you to make clear to Vietnam that regardless of the specific provisions of the US-Vietnam plan, it is imperative as a diplomatic and political matter that Vietnam move quickly to amend or repeal relevant labor laws to allow freedom of association and related rights.
Your trip comes in the month when a new National Assembly is being selected – not elected – by the Communist Party for a five-year term. Earlier this year a new President and Prime Minister were appointed.
We believe that one of the most important steps you can take on your trip is to make a public call for the authorities to make a commitment to hold free and fair elections. As you have in other countries, we urge you to speak strongly about the virtues of democratic governance and the historic responsibility for leaders who deny citizens these basic rights.
The timing of your trip makes it important to speak out in support of the several dozen independent Vietnamese citizens who recently attempted to stand for election for the country’s National Assembly. These independent candidates – who are not members of the Communist Party, attempted to work within the system as it exists, presenting election platforms with recommendations for reforms and better governance. They were not seeking to change the government, since only a handful of seats are reserved for non-communist members, but simply to participate in the country’s governance. Yet the Communist Party did not approve any of these individuals to stand as candidates. In many cases, government or party agents engaged in a campaign of intimidation to block their candidacies from succeeding. We urge you to meet with some of these candidates and speak about their cases publicly.
Human Rights Watch List of Current Political Prisoners
The following list only includes detained persons who have been convicted, not the significant number of detainees who have been arrested and are currently facing trial, nor cases of arrest or conviction not publicly known.
- Nguyễn Đình Ngọc (a.k.a Nguyễn Ngọc Già), born 1966
- Ngô Thị Minh Ước, born1959
- Nguyễn Thị Bé Hai, born1958
- Nguyễn Thi Trí, born 1958
- Nguyễn Hữu Vinh (a.k.a Ba Sàm), born 1956
- Nguyễn Thị Minh Thúy, born 1980
- Nguyễn Văn Thông, born 1965
- Đỗ Đình Dũ, born 1959
- Kpuih Khuông
- Rmah Khil
- Rmah Bloanh
- A Kuin (a.k.a Bă Chăn), born 1974
- Ngư (a.k.a Bă Săn), born 1972
- Bùi Thị Minh Hằng, born1964
- Nguyễn Văn Minh, born 1980
- Điểu B’ré (a.k.a Bạp Bum), born 1969
- Điểu By Ơ, born 1967
- Điểu Đong, born 1966
- Lý Văn Hầu
- Đinh Yum, born 1963
- Rơ Mah Plă (a.k.a Rmah Blă; a.k.a Ama Em), born1968
- Siu Tinh (a.k.a Ama Khâm), born 1978
- Đinh Lý
- Đinh Ngo
- Thạch Thươl, born 1985
- Liêu Ny, born 1986
- Ngô Hào, born 1948
- A Tách (a.k.a Bă Hlôl), born 1959
- Rung, born 1979
- Jơnh (a.k.a Chình), born 1952
- A Hyum (a.k.a Bă Kôl), born 1940
- Byưk, born 1945
- Đinh Lứ, born 1976
- Đinh Hrôn, born 1981
- Đinh Nguyên Kha, born 1988
- Phan Văn Thu, born 1948
- Lê Duy Lộc, born 1956
- Vương Tấn Sơn, born 1953
- Đoàn Đình Nam, born 1951
- Nguyễn Kỳ Lạc, born 1951
- Tạ Khu, born 1947
- Từ Thiện Lương
- Võ Ngọc Cư, born 1951
- Võ Thành Lê, born 1955
- Võ Tiết, born 1952
- Lê Phúc, born 1951
- Đoàn Văn Cư, born 1962
- Nguyễn Dinh, born 1968
- Phan Thanh Ý, born 1948
- Đỗ Thị Hồng, born 1957
- Trần Phi Dũng, born 1966
- Lê Đức Động, born 1983
- Lê Trọng Cư, born 1966
- Lương Nhật Quang, born 1987
- Nguyễn Thái Bình, born 1986
- Trần Quân, born 1984
- Phan Thanh Tường, born 1987
- Bùi Văn Trung, born 1964
- Hồ Đức Hòa, born 1974
- Đặng Xuân Diệu, born 1979
- Nguyễn Đặng Minh Mẫn, born 1985
- Tráng A Chớ, born 1985
- Trần Vũ Anh Bình, born 1974
- Nguyễn Kim Nhàn, born 1949
- Kpuil Mel
- Kpuil Lễ
- Phan Ngọc Tuấn, born 1959
- Nay Y Nga, born 1979
- Nguyễn Công Chính (a.k.a Nguyễn Thành Long), born 1969
- Siu Thái (a.k.a Ama Thương), born 1978
- Nguyễn Ngọc Cường, born 1956
- Phạm Thị Phượng, born 1945
- Trần Thị Thúy, born 1971
- Phạm Văn Thông, born 1962
- Siu Hlom, born 1967
- Siu Nheo, born 1955
- Siu Brơm, born 1967
- Rah Lan Mlih, born 1966
- Rơ Mah Pró, born 1964
- Rah Lan Blom, born 1976
- Kpă Sinh, born 1959
- Rơ Mah Klít, born 1946
- Phùng Lâm, born 1966
- Nguyễn Hoàng Quốc Hùng, born 1981
- Đoàn Huy Chương, born 1985
- Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, born 1966
- Rmah Hlach (a.k.a Ama Blut), born 1968
- Siu Kơch (a.k.a Ama Liên), born 1985
- Nhi (a.k.a Bă Tiêm), born 1958
- AmLinh (a.k.a Bả Blưng), born1943
- Yưh (a.k.a Bă Nar), born 1962
- Siu Ben (a.k.a Ama Yôn),
- Rơ Lan Jú (a.k.a Ama Suit)
- Nơh, born1959
- Rôh, born 1962
- Pinh, born 1967
- Rơ Mah Then, born1985
- Siu Wiu, 31 yrs old
- Nguyễn Văn Lý, born 1946
- Brong, born 1964
- Y Kur BĐáp
- Y Jim Êban