Dear Foreign Minister Kono:
We are writing to urge you to raise critical human rights concerns during your upcoming visit to Vietnam and meeting with Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi on September 13. We urge you to publicly highlight the cases of political prisoners and strongly convey that improving Japan-Vietnam relations will require improvements to Vietnam’s human rights record.
As you know, Vietnam’s government has a deeply repressive record on human rights. It restricts basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and religion. It owns and controls all media in the country and censors the Internet. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) monopolizes the leadership of all public institutions and uses them to maintain its hold on power. Since it came to power in 1954, it has never allowed free and fair elections. There are no real democratic processes in Vietnam; its National Assembly is almost entirely comprised of CPV members selected by the party itself. The courts and all ministries are under CPV control. Independent trade unions are prohibited and social organizations, religious groups, and civil society are tightly regulated.
As the largest bilateral donor to Vietnam, and as a large export market for goods produced in Vietnam, Japan is uniquely positioned to encourage the Vietnamese government to improve its abysmal human rights record.
There are several specific human rights issues that you could raise during your visit to Vietnam, including limits on freedom of speech and assembly, restriction on the practice of religion and belief, the incarceration of political prisoners, and the violation of labor rights. We outline these topics in the appendix to this letter.
We strongly urge you to raise human rights in your discussion with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and to pressure the Vietnamese government to initiate rights respecting reforms. Many human rights activists in Vietnam are looking to Japan to affirm the international human rights standards that the activists are themselves taking great risks to promote. We urge you to affirm that Japan stands with these brave Vietnamese human rights activists, and the public at large, in their struggle to demand their government respect basic freedoms.
We also urge you to communicate clearly and publicly to the Vietnamese government that if the country’s human rights record does not begin to improve, Japan will begin reconsidering its financial aid to Vietnam as well as its economic, military, and security ties with the country.
Thank you for your consideration and we look forward to discussing these matters further with your staff.
Appendix: Critical Human Rights Issues in Vietnam
Vietnam’s prisons currently hold at least 130 political prisoners. Vietnam’s government typically views those who advocate for democracy and human rights as criminals and threats to national security. During the first eight months of 2018 alone, at least 28 rights activists and bloggers have been put on trial, convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. Prominent blogger Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is serving a term of 16 years in prison for peacefully campaign for democracy and a multi-party system, has been carrying out a hunger strike in prison since August 14, 2018 to protest violations against him.
During your visit to Vietnam, we recommend that you raise publicly the issue of political prisoners and call for all to be released immediately and unconditionally. Every release of a political prisoner is a welcome step; however, we hope you will also make the point that releases alone do not constitute lasting 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 subjected to violence at the hands of police or persons who appear to be plainclothes government agents. In June 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report highlighting 36 incidents in which men in civilian clothes beat activists between January 2015 and April 2017, often resulting in serious injuries. Attacks by thugs on rights campaigners continue to take place in many regions, sometimes in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to stop the attacks.
In Lam Dong province in June, men in civilian clothes broke into the house of Hua Phi, a Cao Dai religious activist, beat him, and cut off his beard. In June and July, also in Lam Dong province, unidentified men threw rocks and a handmade incendiary device into the house of a labor activist and former political prisoner, Do Thi Minh Hanh. In August, security agents brutally beat Pham Doan Trang, a blogger; Nguyen Tin, a singer; and Nguyen Dang Cao Dai, a rights activists, after a raid on a concert in Ho Chi Minh City. In August, the police of Khanh Hoa province detained activist Ngo Thanh Tu and beat him repeatedly. In September, men in civilian clothes assaulted activist Huynh Cong Thuan in Ho Chi Minh City as he was driving home from work on a motorbike.
Local police put activists under house arrest or briefly detain them to prevent them from participating in protests and human rights discussions or attending the trials of fellow activists. The government has also prohibited an increasing number of dissidents and human rights defenders from traveling abroad. In May 2018, the police barred human rights activist Father Dinh Huu Thoai from leaving Vietnam for a personal trip to the United States. In August, the police denied the issuance of a passport to former political prisoner Le Cong Dinh without providing an explanation.
In your meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, we urge you to speak forcefully about the need for law reform in support of freedom of expression, assembly, association and information.
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.
We urge you to express Japan’s grave concern over some problematic laws and mention them by name – for instance, penal code provisions prohibiting: “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration”; “undermining national unity policy”; “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”; and “disrupting security.”
In June 2017, the National Assembly, which operates under the effective control of the ruling Communist Party, revised sections of the penal code to criminalize actions related to preparing to perform forbidden acts involving national security. Those found guilty of these acts face up to five years in prison. This means that someone who simply discusses social issues or comments critically about the government with friends at a café can be accused of preparing to conduct propaganda against the state. Another example is a person who is simply attending a human rights education meeting can now be accused of preparing to “carry out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration.”
The revised penal code also holds lawyers criminally responsible if they fail to report their own clients to authorities for a number of crimes, including the vague political offenses listed above, thereby undermining the right to legal counsel for critics of the government. Other laws, such as “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of individuals and organizations,” “disrupting public order,” and “resisting officials carrying out their public duty” are also used to repress people’s exercise of basic civil and political liberties.
We ask that you also raise concerns with the criminal procedure code, in particular provisions allowing excessive and incommunicado pre-trial detention for alleged national security violations.
In June 2018, Vietnam's National Assembly passed a highly problematic law on cybersecurity that has been widely criticized in Vietnam and internationally. Under the new law, which will go into effect on January 1, 2019, service providers must take down offending content within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Ministry of Public Security or the Ministry of Information and Communications. Internet companies are also required to store data locally, verify user information, and disclose user data to authorities on demand without a court order, all of which threaten the right to privacy and could facilitate further suppression of online expression, dissent or political activism.
We urge you to raise serious concerns with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh about the law’s harmful impacts and ask the Vietnamese government to postpone the implementation of this law until further changes can be made that would bring the law into full compliance with international human rights standards.
Vietnam prohibits the establishment or operation of independent political parties, labor unions, and human rights organizations. Authorities require approval for public gatherings and refuse permission for meetings, marches, or public assemblies they deem to be politically unacceptable. All unions are required by law to affiliate and operate under the control of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) which is directly controlled by the Communist Party.
Independent union organizers face harassment, intimidation, and retaliation. The authorities convicted labor activists Truong Minh Duc to 12 years in prison in April and Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in February 2018.
We urge you to make clear to Vietnam that it is imperative as a diplomatic and political matter that Vietnam move quickly to amend or repeal relevant labor laws that restrict freedom of association and related rights, and ensure that Vietnam’s labor laws fully comply with ILO Conventions 87 and 98.
Restriction on the practice of religion and belief
The government monitors, harasses, and sometimes violently cracks down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions. Unrecognized branches of the Cao Dai church, Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant and Catholic house churches, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam face constant surveillance, harassment, and intimidation. Followers of independent religious group are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment. In January and February 2018, at least 10 independent Hoa Hao Buddhist activists were convicted to many years in prison. In July, the authorities put Pastor Dinh Diem on trial for his advocacy for freedom of religion and convicted him to 16 years in prison.
During your meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, you should urge Vietnam to allow all independent religious organizations to freely conduct religious activities and manage their own internal governance.