New Arrests of Peaceful Critics Show Vietnam Lacks Commitment to Protecting Human Rights

(New York September 25, 2009 ) - The Vietnamese government has rejected and ignored recommendations to improve its deteriorating human rights record raised during the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review process that ended this week, Human Rights Watch said today.

"Shockingly, Vietnam denied to the Human Rights Council that it has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of peaceful dissidents and independent religious activists," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Yet in just the four months since Vietnam's last appearance at the council, it has arrested scores more."

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, Vietnam asserted during the Human Rights Council review process that it has no "so-called ‘prisoners of conscience';" that no one is arrested for criticizing the government, only for violating Vietnam's laws; that its national security laws "conform to international law;" and "there is no practice of torture or degrading treatment of law offenders and those under detention for investigative purposes."

In Vietnam's final report, adopted by the Human Rights Council on September 24 as part of a required review process for all UN member states, the Vietnamese government refused to seriously discuss or respond to many of the Human Rights Council's recommendations.

Instead, Vietnam rejected 45 recommendations from member states. These included proposals that the government lift internet and blogging controls and prohibitions on privately owned media; allow groups and individuals to promote human rights, express their opinions and publicly dissent; expedite local registration of religious organizations and equitable resolution of religious property disputes; take steps to abolish the death penalty; repeal or amend national security laws used to criminalize peaceful dissent, and release peaceful prisoners of conscience.

Vietnam also refused to issue standing invitations to UN rights experts to visit Vietnam, including UN special rapporteurs on freedom of expression, religious freedom, torture, human rights defenders, and violence against women, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

"Vietnam - a member of the UN Security Council - has made a mockery of its engagement at the UN Human Rights Council," said Pearson. "Vietnam rejected even the most benign recommendations based on the international covenants it has signed, such as allowing people to promote human rights or express their opinions."

Of the 93 recommendations accepted by the Vietnamese government, many consisted of only broad statements of intent to "consider" proposals by member states. Vietnam also claimed to have already carried out - or to be in the process of carrying out - recommended measures to ensure full respect of freedom of religion and to prevent violence and discrimination against ethnic minorities.

"Like China, Vietnam has rebuffed the Human Rights Council in an effort to sanitize its abysmal rights record," said Pearson. "The UN's rights review offers proof to the world that despite international concern, Vietnam has no real intention of improving its record."

On the positive side, after the Human Rights Council's interactive dialogue on Vietnam's rights review in May, the Vietnamese government reduced the number of crimes punishable by capital punishment.

Dodging and Denial of Rights Abuses

Vietnam, which sent 25 high-level officials from Hanoi to Geneva to lobby member states during the May dialogue, attempted to pad the speakers' list with like-minded states whose representatives commended Vietnam's accomplishments in human rights and poverty reduction.

The country's final report stated that Cuba had praised Vietnam's successes, "based in a system freely chosen by the people," and its protection of the rights of ethnic minorities, while Sri Lanka had asserted that "Vietnam more than any other country has stood up for the human rights of its own people and throughout the world by fighting for national independence, freedom and social progress."

Vietnamese state television broadcast the first 20 minutes of the interactive dialogue, which included speeches by representatives of seven friendly states who lined up early, but the broadcast was terminated when Canada's representative, who was critical of Vietnam's rights record, rose to speak.

At least 15 states, including the Czech Republic, which held the EU presidency at the time of the May dialogue, were unable to speak because of time restraints. Of the 60 states whose representatives did speak, a broad range of countries made strong recommendations, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Arbitrary Detentions

Despite Vietnam's denials that it arbitrarily arrests and imprisons peaceful government critics, human rights defenders, political bloggers, and independent church activists, the government has arrested scores more since May.

In August, for example, the Vietnamese state news agency reported that 27 people had been arrested for their alleged links to the Democratic Party of Vietnam, which like all parties in Vietnam other than the ruling Communist Party, is banned. Of those arrested, at least five - including the prominent rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh - have been prosecuted on national security charges. More than a dozen other dissidents and democracy activists arrested during the last year on national security charges await trial.

Many of the recent arrests have taken place away from the public spotlight. On May 30, for example, police arrested a land rights activist, Huynh Ba, a member of the Khmer Krom ethnic minority who led protests of farmers in the Mekong Delta over confiscation of their farm land. Since his arrest, he has been held incommunicado in Soc Trang provincial prison.

Since May, more than 30 Montagnard Christians belonging to independent house churches in Gia Lai province have been arrested, with some severely beaten, for holding unsanctioned prayer meetings in their homes. In addition, nine Montagnards were sentenced in recent months to prison terms of up to 12 years on national security charges, joining another 300 Montagnards imprisoned since 2001.

"Vietnam's ongoing arrests of peaceful dissidents and church activists - conducted even as the UN was evaluating its rights record - shows its flagrant disregard for its international human rights obligations," said Pearson. "Member states should deliver a clear message to Vietnam that it needs to uphold its international rights commitments."