A Midsummer’s Review: Vietnam’s Human Rights Record in 2014 and How You Can Create Positive Change

As the summer solstice now fades into the distance, the second half of 2014 looms before us. Read on to see what Vietnam has done so far in 2014 and to see what we can do to ensure a safer, more peaceful, and more democratic second half of the year for the people there. 

The First Half of 2014, Reviewed

In the first month of 2014, The 88 Project was excited to learn that 21 bipartisan members of the US House of Representatives picked imprisoned activists to sponsor. Representative Alan Lowenthal of California adopted Nguyen Tien Trung, and Rep. David Price of North Carolina adopted Cu Huy Ha Vu, both of whom were released later in the year. Reps. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX), and Chris Smith (NJ), adopted Do Thi Minh Hanh, Ta Phong Tan, and Father Nguyen Van Ly, who remain imprisoned in Vietnam.

January 2014 saw riots at a Samsung factory construction site in Vietnam, as well as violence against ex-prisoners of conscience, who were detained and beaten while paying a visit to a fellow activist. On the US’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Vietnamese hackers attacked the computers of both US and French activists working on human rights issues in Vietnam, greatly disrupting their work.

In January, we learned that Vietnam currently has more imprisoned journalists than Syria– 18 total, which is the fifth highest number in the world. The Human Rights Watch World Report 2014 brought in similarly startling numbers, estimating that there are currently 150-200 political prisoners being held in Vietnam.

Vietnam was also named to Press Freedom’s Risk List and is ranked at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’s 2014 World Press Freedom Index: 174 of 180 countries 

In February, the international community was enraged over the condemned appeal of blogger and lawyer Le Quoc Quan, one of the most well-known Vietnamese prisoners of conscience. His arrest, trial, and appeal drew protests from around the world, as he was arrested under charges of tax evasion that were simply meant to quell his work as an activist.

Also in February, writer Pham Chi Dung was denied leave of Vietnam to attend a conference in Geneva during the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Vietnam’s human rights record. The UPR in February concluded that Vietnam was still far short of fulfilling its promises made to improve its human rights situation, however Vietnam’s human rights record was eventually later upheld at the subsequent June 20, 2014 UPR hearing.

Just ahead of the initial UPR review, a Vietnamese ex-diplomat applied for Swiss asylum, citing faults of the one-party state. He urged Vietnam to stop covering up its abuses. 

On March 4th, Vietnam sentenced blogger Truong Duy Nhat to two years in prison. He joined the group of a reported 200 imprisoned dissidents—212 to be exact (reported by the International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH). Later in the month, sixty-two year old Pham Viet Dao, who was arrested in June of 2013, was sentenced to fifteen months in prison. He was sentenced under Article 258 of Vietnam’s Penal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms.”

On March 21st, Dinh Dang Dinh and Nguyen Huu Cau were released from prison. Unfortunately, Dinh Dang Dinh, who was battling stomach cancer, died on April 3rd, at age 50. Nguyen Huu Cau, 68, who is also severely ill, was released after serving three decades in prison.

Activist Cu Huy Ha Vu was also released early from prison as well, on April 5th. He and his wife arrived in the US on April 7th. He was originally sentenced to serve seven years but was released after serving about three and a half years; he suffers from heart problems.

Activists Nguyen Tien Trung and Vu Duc Ho were also released early. The two had spent five years behind bars and now face three years of probation each.

These early releases, however, should be seen not so much as a change in the Vietnamese government’s stance towards political dissent and freedom of expression, but rather as a concession made to the international community at a time when Vietnam needs allies. Vietnam is currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the US and has also carried tensions with China for most of the year.

On May 5th, right after the aforementioned releases of a handful of prisoners, Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were then arrested. They were arrested for the content of their writings, and, like many other activists, they were arrested under Article 258 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. They could receive up to seven years in prison each. 

Also in May, President Obama announced his new pick for US Ambassadot to Vietnam: Ted Osius, who now awaits confirmation.

Vietnam Human Rights Record Upheld by UNHRC: What Happens Next?

Despite protests from international NGOs and governments, on June 20th, the UNHRC affirmed Vietnam’s human rights record and its place on the Council. Though Vietnam chose not to adopt many critical UN recommendations to improve its human rights record, Vietnam has once again been granted a free pass to continue governing unchanged and unchallenged by international rules.

Less than a week after the UNHRC’s review of Vietnam, Truong Duy Nhat’s (sentenced in March) two-year sentence for “abusing democratic freedoms” was upheld. His biggest crime?: calling for the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s resignation.

Despite the UN ruling, it is clear that the first half of 2014 has consistently followed the pattern of crackdown in Vietnamese activist communities that has played out since 2007. Harassment of activists both in and out of jail continues, often turning violent. Land rights, labor rights, and freedom of religion are also becoming notable subjects of controversy, along with the everlasting battle over freedom of press and of expression.

The only way for Vietnam to move forward as a fully-developed, socially-just, and internationally-responsible country is to accept criticism of its government, to allow for differing ideas to coexist in the nation, and to protect the rights of its people as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his recent Washington Post article, ex-prisoner of conscience, Cu Huy Ha Vu, suggests a few actions that are needed in Vietnam:

“Governments in the free world should demand that the Vietnamese government dismantle its arsenal of instruments for repression — starting with the repeal of Articles 79, 88 and 258of its penal code — and link future trade and security benefits to such legal reforms. It is not too much to ask: These laws are not only a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — to which Vietnam has been a party since 1982 — but also contradict the Vietnamese constitution.”

The article reports that an astounding 2/3 of known prisoners of conscience are imprisoned under the aforementioned three Articles. Additonally, this piece estimates that there are currently 400 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.

Cu Huy Ha Vu concludes: “The international community often focuses on pressing Vietnam for more prisoner releases. While I benefited from such attention, it often backfires as a diplomatic approach. The Vietnamese government treats prisoners of conscience as commodities to barter with the United States and other Western countries for security and trade benefits as well as foreign aid. Vietnam has stocked a reserve of prisoners of conscience for future bargaining.”

Why Does It All Matter?

Freedom of expression is repressed in a shockingly high number of countries today—even often in the United States. In order for citizens to have a voice to change the circumstances of their communities—and of the world—they need to be able to be heard by their governments and included in the governing process. Without the means by which citizens can influence government, issues such as poverty, sex trafficking, discrimination and inequality, HIV/AIDS, climate change, and so much more will never have a true chance at being tackled.

Inclusive discussion is needed in order to facilitate change and to draw up a nation’s priorities, open forums are needed in order to make sure all peoples’ needs are addressed, and unity is needed in order for lasting, positive action to take place. None of this can happen when a government stifles free expression.

Yes, Vietnam is just one example of many countries that face freedom of expression issues. However, wherever we start working—whether it be working for change in Vietnam or elsewhere—it all counts. It all matters. Vietnam is a bustling, growing economy with many foreign onlookers reaching for a part of the boom. Good human rights records must be a stipulation for international relationships and trade, and no country should be invested in solely for its strong economy. We cannot continue to value outward appearances and economic success over internal actions and the health of a country at its core. 

Take Action for Human Rights in Vietnam

  • Tell someone: Talk to a friend about what’s happening in Vietnam or share this article or The 88 Project website on your social media sites.
  • Write letters: Write to your legislator, your local newspaper, your school, the Vietnamese government, or even to an imprisoned activist or their family. Let them know that you care about human rights in Vietnam.
  • Research: Educate yourself and others on the issues, especially the impacts that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will have on human rights in Vietnam.
  • Stay in the Loop: Learn more about Vietnam. Watch The 88 Project’s documentary and video interviews and read blog posts and news at the88project.com. You can also follow us on Twitter @The88Project.
  • Volunteer Your Talents: Help The 88 Project to continue to raise awareness. Volunteer to distribute information, translate, make videos, or anything else that aligns with your interests and talents.
  • Sign the Reporters Without Borders Petition: Add your name to the over 32,000 signatures: http://rsf.org/petitions/vietnam/petition.php?lang=en
  • Donate: Support a project that is preparing Vietnamese activists with the tools, training, and help they need to live and work in Vietnam: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/support-vietnam-press-freedom-with-equipment/
  • Contact Us: Let us know if you have questions, comments, or concerns. We would be happy to start a conversation with you.

Actions for Specific Prisoners

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