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Human Rights Watch Submission to the Australian Government Ahead of the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue

March 30, 2023

Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the preparations for the 18th Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, scheduled to be held in Hanoi on April 24-25, 2023.

February marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Vietnam. The two countries’ trade relationship continues to grow. In 2022, Australia became Vietnam’s seventh largest trade partner, while Vietnam remains Australia’s tenth largest trade partner.

In November, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese welcomed Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue of the Vietnam National Assembly to Australia. They announced that the two countries plan to “elevate the relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” Also in November, Prime Minister Albanese met Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in which Pham Minh Chinh thanked Australia for increasing official development assistance to Vietnam by 18 percent in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Amidst these pronouncements, Prime Minister Albanese made no public mention at either meeting of the Vietnamese government’s abysmal human rights record.

Vietnam’s government severely restricts basic civil and political rights in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Vietnam ratified in 1982. These include the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, movement, and of religion and belief. It prohibits the formation and operation of any organization or group the Vietnamese Communist Party deems threatening to its monopoly on power. Authorities block access to websites and require social media and telecommunications companies remove contents deemed to be politically sensitive. Those who criticize the one-party state, including on social media, face police harassment, restricted movement, physical assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, and prosecution. Police detain political activists for months without access to legal counsel and subject them to abusive interrogations. Party-controlled courts convict bloggers and activists on bogus national security charges and impose lengthy prison sentences.

A Vietnamese government decree issued in August 2022 broadly restricts international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Vietnam from any activity against “national interests, laws, national defense, security, social order and safety” and “social ethics, national fine customs and practices, national traditions, identity or great national unity” of Vietnam. No definitions of these terms are provided in the decree, but groups deemed to violate these provisions will be shut down.

As the human rights dialogue approaches, Human Rights Watch recommends that the Australian government focuses on three priority areas regarding the dire human rights situation in Vietnam: 1) political prisoners and detainees; 2) restrictions on freedom of movement; and 3) repression of the right to freely practice religion and belief. We urge the Australian government to press for clear, concrete, and measurable benchmarks for progress in these areas, laying out consequences for bilateral relations should these violations continue to go unaddressed.

1. Political Prisoners and Detainees

The Vietnamese government frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in Vietnam’s penal code and other laws to prosecute and imprison peaceful political and religious activists. These include “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” (article 109), “undermining the unity policy” (article 116), “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (article 117) or “conducting propaganda against the state” (article 88 of the 1999 penal code), and “disrupting security” (article 118). Vietnam also uses other articles in the penal code to target rights campaigners, including “abusing the rights to democracy and freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations, individuals” (article 331), and “disrupting public order” (article 318).

Vietnam currently holds more than 160 people in prison for peacefully exercising their basic civil and political rights. In 2022 alone, the Vietnamese authorities convicted and sentenced to prison at least 35 people for criticizing the government or joining independent organizations or religious groups including citizen journalists Le Van Dung and Le Manh Ha, and democracy activists Dinh Van Hai and Bui Van Thuan to between five and eight years in prison. In August, courts in Hanoi rejected the appeals of the prominent blogger Pham Doan Trang, and land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam. In March 2023, a court in Hanoi convicted and sentenced democracy campaigner Truong Van Dung to six years in prison. Police are holding at least 18 other people in pretrial detention on politically motivated charges, including human rights defenders Nguyen Thuy HanhNguyen Lan Thang, and Bui Tuan Lam.

In 2022, the Vietnamese government stepped up the repression of NGO activists. Courts convicted journalist Mai Phan Loi, environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach, and environmental defender Nguy Thi Khanh on politically motivated charges of alleged tax evasion and sent them to prison. Nguy Thi Khanh is a 2018 winner of the internationally prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, honoring grassroots environmental activists. Police also arrested the activists Hoang Ngoc Giao in December 2022 and Nguyen Son Lo in February 2023.

Since January 2019, Chau Van Kham, an Australian citizen, has been reportedly subjected to hard labor in a Vietnamese prison for being a member of an overseas organization that is officially registered in Australia.

Vietnam’s criminal procedure code stipulates that the procurator of the People’s Supreme Procuracy can decide to hold a person suspected of violating national security in detention until the investigation is concluded (article 173(5)), and can restrict the detainee’s access to legal counsel until after investigation is concluded (article 74). In practice, this means that those who are suspected of violating national security offenses are regularly held in police custody without access to a lawyer for as long as the authorities determine.

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Immediately release all political prisoners and detainees held for exercising their basic civil and political rights.
  • Amend or repeal penal code articles 109, 116, 117, 118 and 331 in conformity with Vietnam's obligations under the ICCPR.
  • Amend or repeal articles 74 and 173 of the criminal procedure code and allow anyone for any alleged violations, including national security crimes, to have immediate access to legal counsel upon being arrested.

2. Restrictions on Freedom of Movement

Vietnamese authorities routinely violate the right to freedom of movement and other basic rights by subjecting activists, dissidents, human rights defenders, and others to indefinite house arrest, harassment in public, and other actions that restrict their ability to travel and go places. The authorities frequently detain activists just long enough to prevent them from attending public protests, trials of fellow activists, meetings with foreign diplomats, and other human rights-related events.

Security agents keep people under house arrest by stationing plainclothes security agents outside homes, using padlocks to lock people inside, erecting roadblocks and other barriers to prevent people from leaving their homes and others from entering, mobilizing neighborhood thugs to intimidate people into staying home, and even applying very strong adhesives – such as “superglue” – on homeowner’s locks.

The government also systematically blocks rights activists, bloggers, dissidents, and their family members from domestic and international travel, including by stopping them at airports and border gates, and denying passports or other documents that would allow them to leave or enter the country.

Human Rights Watch published a report, “Locked Inside Our Home: Movement Restrictions on Rights Activists in Vietnam,” in February 2022 that details Vietnam’s systemic, severe restrictions on freedom of movement between 2004 and 2021.

In March 2022, security agents prevented eight democracy supporters from attending an event in Hanoi in support of Ukraine following the Russian invasion. In August, police prohibited human rights lawyer Vo An Don and his family from leaving Vietnam for the United States, citing national security. In October, police prohibited Father Truong Hoang Vu of the Redemptorist Order from leaving Vietnam for the United States, citing social order and safety as a reason. In February 2023, security agents placed poet Hoang Hung and his wife under house arrest so they could not join their friends to commemorate the anniversary of the 1979 border war between Vietnam and China.

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Immediately end arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of movement, including house arrests, arbitrary detention, harassment, surveillance, and domestic and international travel bans, that are imposed against activists and other critics of the government.
  • Repeal or amend article 14(2) and article 15(4) of the Constitution, which allow for restrictions on human rights for reasons of national security that go beyond what is permissible under international human rights law.
  • Repeal or amend provisions of the Law on Immigration that allow the authorities to arbitrarily ban Vietnamese citizens from traveling abroad or returning to Vietnam on the basis of vaguely defined national security provisions.

3. Repression of the Right to Freely Practice Religion and Belief

The Vietnamese government restricts religious practice through legislation, registration requirements, harassment, and surveillance. Religious groups are required to gain approval from and register with the government as well as operate under government-controlled management boards. While authorities allow many government-affiliated churches and pagodas to hold worship services, they regularly ban religious activities they arbitrarily deem to be contrary to the “national interest,” “public order,” or “national unity.” The government labels Dega Protestant, Ha Mon Catholic, Falun Gong and a few other religious groups as ta dao (“evil religion”) and harasses those who practice those beliefs.

The police monitor and sometimes violently crack down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions. Unrecognized independent religious groups face constant surveillance, harassment, and intimidation, and their followers are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment.

As of September 2021, Vietnam acknowledged that it had not officially recognized about 140 religious groups with approximately one million followers.

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:

  • Allow all independent religious organizations to freely conduct religious activities and govern themselves. Churches and denominations that do not choose to join one of the officially authorized religious organizations with government-sanctioned boards should be allowed to operate independently.
  • End government harassment, forced denunciations of faith, arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, and ill-treatment of people because they are followers of disfavored religions, and release anyone currently being held for peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of religion, belief, expression, assembly and association.

Permit outside observers, including United Nations agencies, NGOs, and foreign diplomats, to have unhindered and unaccompanied access to the Central Highlands, including specifically to communes and villages inhabited by Montagnards and other marginalized groups. Ensure there is no retribution or retaliation against anyone who speaks to or otherwise communicates with such outside observers.

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