(New York) – Vietnam’s government should immediately stop all harassment, intimidation, and persecution of environmental activists, said Human Rights Watch today. The government should respect their right to peaceful protest and release anyone still wrongfully held.
On the last three Sundays – May 1, 8, and 15 – thousands of people in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Vung Tau, Da Nang, Hue, and Nghe An publicly demonstrated to demand a transparent government investigation into the recent mass fish kills off the coast of Ha Tinh province. While the authorities only subjected the protests on May 1 to light harassment, police and other security forces used unnecessary and excessive force to end demonstrations on the following two Sundays.
“The Vietnamese government too conveniently forgets that the right to peaceful protest is a core right protected in Vietnam’s Constitution and international human rights law,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Rather than sorting out the environment disaster, the government has focused on breaking up demonstrations and punishing those calling for accountability.”
The protests erupted in response to the government’s slow reaction to the abrupt appearance of hundreds of thousands of dead fish along the shore of the Vung Ang industrial zone in Ha Tinh province. Carrying homemade banners calling for “clean water, clean government, and transparency,” groups of protesters in several cities gathered in public spaces to express their concerns. Protests by all accounts reported on social media and Youtube video clips were peaceful and featured sit-down actions, chanting of slogans, and singing and marching while carrying placards and banners.
On May 8 the government responded to the protests with what appeared to be a sophisticated, multi-pronged operation involving police and para-military forces deploying a wide range of tactics. Dozens of activists reported on social media that security forces placed them under effective house arrest on Sunday mornings, before the scheduled protests. Rights activist Nguyen Lan Thang and prominent musician and poet Do Trung Quan described thugs vandalizing their property by splashing red paint and rancid shrimp paste. The police also picked up people on the street that they suspected of supporting the protests and detained them for hours to ensure they could not take part in demonstrations.
During the protests, police and para-military forces blocked off streets with a massive show of force. During the protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, security agents forcibly pulled people from among the ranks of the marchers, manhandled them, and arrested and transported them to local police stations. Activists were also assaulted by security agents when they showed up outside the police stations to protest these arrests.
While on May 8 the authorities used force to stop the demonstrations, the next Sunday, May 15, officials took massive pre-emptive measures to stop large demonstrations from occurring in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Smaller protests that formed in their place were disbanded by overpowering police forces. Normal access to Facebook was also blocked for most of the day. Credible reports on social media indicate that a number of detainees were taken to an administrative holding center (trung tam ho tro xa hoi) where “social deviants” are incarcerated and reeducated. Some remain in detention at the time of this writing. Others have been attacked by the state media, which has accused them of accepting money and taking orders from foreign “reactionary” groups.
The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam ratified in 1982. International human rights standards limit the use of force to situations in which it is strictly necessary. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials may only use force if other means remain ineffective or have no promise of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and to the legitimate objective to be achieved.
“Instead of allowing peaceful protesters to demonstrate, the government appears to be upping the ante with its use of force,” Robertson said. “The authorities in Hanoi should be stepping in to reverse this ugly development.”