Members of the European Parliament sit in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament during a vote.  ©2020 Philipp von Ditfurth/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
(Bangkok) – The European Union should press Vietnam to end its systemic repression of human rights and release political prisoners and detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. A human rights dialogue between the EU and Vietnam is scheduled for February 19, 2020 in Hanoi.

The meeting will be held only a week after the European Parliament approved an EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Investment Protection Agreement (IPA). With several other Vietnamese and international groups, Human Rights Watch had urged the European Parliament to postpone ratification to put pressure on Vietnam to commit to human rights reforms and to agree to enforceable measures to improve labor rights.

“The European Union missed an important opportunity when it agreed to a trade deal with Vietnam without securing enforceable commitments for human rights reforms,” said John Sifton, Asia Advocacy director. “EU officials should warn the Vietnam government during the human rights dialogue that failure to meet those commitments could result in suspension of the agreements’ benefits”.
 
Human rights should be an integral part of bilateral relations between the EU and Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said.

In January, Human Rights Watch sent the EU a submission in preparation for the dialogue, urging the EU to focus on five priority areas regarding the dire human rights situation in Vietnam: 1) political prisoners and detainees; 2) repression of freedom of speech, association, assembly, and movement; 3) repression of freedom of information; 4) repression of the right to freely practice religion; and 5) police brutality.

The EU should urge Vietnam to release all political prisoners and detainees and amend articles in its penal code used to imprison people for peaceful protest, association, dissent, and religious activities, including articles 109, 116, 117, 118, and 331. The Vietnamese authorities frequently use these articles to punish anyone who expresses views or joins an independent group that Vietnam’s Communist Party sees as a threat to its monopoly on power.

In one notable incident in November 2019 linked to the EU-Vietnam agreements, the authorities detained a Vietnamese journalist, Pham Chi Dung, and charged him with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” most likely in connection to an overture he made to the European Parliament about Vietnam’s abysmal rights record. He remains in detention without access to a lawyer.

Pham Chi Dung is one among hundreds of activists who are harassed, prosecuted, and convicted for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, including on social media. In late 2019, the European Parliament president, David Sassoli, sent a letter to Vietnamese authorities calling for his release ahead of the vote on the EU-Vietnam agreements. The Vietnamese ambassador's reply, seen by Human Rights Watch, plainly defends the arrest and shamelessly compares Vietnam's limitations to freedom of expression to those in place in western countries.

Under Vietnam’s criminal procedure code, the authorities can detain people on national security charges for months, or sometimes even years, without access to legal counsel.

The EU should press Vietnam to amend article 74 and article 173 in its criminal procedural code and allow immediate and unhindered accesses to legal assistance for all detainees upon arrest, no matter what the charges.

In the submission to the EU for the dialogue, Human Rights Watch also highlighted the shortcomings of a revised labor code recently passed by Vietnam’s National Assembly. If it is not amended before it becomes effective in January 2021, it will prohibit workers from forming independent unions without official approval. The EU should pressure Vietnam to immediately ratify and carry out the provisions of the International Labour Organization Conventions No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize).

The EU should also press Vietnam to revise its cyber security law to ensure it will not violate freedom of information and release all Facebook users detained for posting their political opinions.

To ensure freedom of religion and belief, Vietnam should allow all religious organizations independence and the rights to govern themselves and freely conduct religious activities. It should immediately end harassment and ill-treatment of followers of religions the government doesn’t favor. It should stop arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning them and forcing them to denounce their faith.

Vietnam should also make serious commitment to end police brutality, Human Rights Watch said. In September, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc approved a roadmap that required security officials across the country to record interrogations, starting on January 1. However, in December, the Public Security Ministry announced a postponement of the roadmap, citing the lack of recording equipment and training for police investigators. It is unclear when it will become effective.

“Numerous rounds of EU-Vietnam human rights dialogues failed to persuade the country to reverse its abusive trend, even as separate negotiations for economic agreements have ended with lucrative deals,” Sifton said. “The EU needs to connect its economic leverage to the human rights principles it claims to champion.”