Human Rights in Vietnam

Human Rights in Vietnam


Against the backdrop of a growing and diversifying civil society movement, the Government of Vietnam continues to repress dissidents and human rights defenders and has taken steps in recent years to amend or introduce laws and regulations that impact on civil and political rights. A host of laws, regulations and decrees grant broad discretionary powers to officials to impose restrictions of basic rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and under international human rights law. The public consultation period before the adoption of a revised Constitution in 2013 saw significant public demand for rule of law reforms. The legislature has amended a number of laws in 2015, including the Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, and Civil Code. Laws on public assembly and on association are pending.

Vietnam is a State party to several human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention against Torture (CAT). Vietnam is a member of the UN Human Rights Council (2014-16). Vietnam has undergone the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2009 and 2014 and has accepted over 270 recommendations from other countries, but the seeming lack of implementation of many of these draws criticisms.

Despite Vietnam’s human rights obligations under domestic and international law, persons in Vietnam who exercise their basic rights to defend human rights and to voice criticism of power brokers often face harassment, intimidation, prosecution, and imprisonment. Scores of human rights defenders, including bloggers, have been prosecuted or imprisoned in the last four years under broadly worded provisions of the Penal Code, including article 88 (which regulates “propaganda against the State”) and article 258 (which prohibits abuses of “democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens”). Media freedom is severely limited as most media outlets and publications are state-owned or under the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) effective control. Restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and association continue both in law and in practice. The 2015 amendments to the Penal Code retained all the draconian provisions.

Despite economic development and progress in poverty alleviation in recent years, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as women, continue to face discrimination, unequal access to economic and education opportunities, and restrictions of their human rights.

The Situation for Human Rights Defenders in Vietnam

Intimidation, assaults, surveillance and prosecution of human rights defenders continue in Vietnam. The authorities have formed ‘Internet armies’ of hackers and opinion influencers to attack Internet activists, ordered websites of opposition groups to be shut down, and made attempts to block or compromise activist websites or social media accounts. Internet activists face prosecution and imprisonment for peaceful expression online.

Human rights defenders are often targeted with politically motivated charges, including accusations of tax evasion. Vietnam has an estimated 100-200 political prisoners – including human rights defenders, such as bloggers, land and labour rights activists, and religious followers. The prison conditions for human rights defenders are harsh and prisoners are routinely denied their rights, such as the right to access adequate health care and sanitation.

In 2015, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) expressed concerns on the alleged harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and ill-treatment of women human rights defenders and urged Vietnam to “create an enabling environment in which women human rights defenders and women’s rights organizations can be freely established and freely operate.”

Despite the government’s on-going information control and restrictions on human rights work, the nascent civil society space is growing and diversifying. The spread of Internet connectivity and communications technology has enabled activists and human rights defenders to more effectively share, receive, and seek information that facilitates their work, build up coalitions, and mobilise others to join their cause. As a result, human rights violations are increasingly difficult to hide and the authorities face greater domestic and international scrutiny.

Ten Rights In Focus

The right to life and physical integrity

15 crimes are punishable by death, after the death penalty were eliminated for seven crimes, including some drug-related offenses, in late 2015. Access to accurate and comprehensive statistics concerning the use of the death penalty is restricted. According to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, there were no recorded executions in 2012, seven executions in 2013 and three in 2015. However, Vietnamese courts continue to hand down death sentences. During the Universal Periodic Review process, Vietnam rejected other States’ recommendations concerning a moratorium or abolition.

Vietnam ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in late 2014. Cases of torture are frequently reported, particularly in police stations, detention facilities, and drug rehabilitation centres. In March 2015, the Ministry of Public Security admitted that 226 people died in detention centres between October 2011 and September 2014. In 2015 and early 2016, deaths in policy custody continue to be reported.

According to a 2010 study conducted by UN Women, one third of all women in Vietnam have been exposed to physical, sexual or psychological violence. Human trafficking of women from Vietnam’s countryside to China is partly driven by China’s population gender imbalance, which has created a market for ‘brides’ from neighbouring countries.

The right to liberty and security of person

Arbitrary detention, arrests and harassment, especially of human rights defenders, are commonplace. Human rights defenders are also subject to house arrest or face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, including the denial or confiscation of their passports. Human rights defenders have been placed on the government’s list of persons prohibited from overseas travel. In recent years, physical assaults against dissidents and activists by police, plainclothes agents and unidentified thugs take place with virtual impunity.

Drug users incarcerated in labour camps have little recourse to independent judicial review of their deprivation of liberty and lack access to rights-based rehabilitation and medical treatment.

Moreover, persons arbitrarily detained are often not given any official reasons for their detention, and their prompt access to legal counsel is often restricted, if not denied all together. Arbitrary detention is often followed by politically motivated charges against detainees, particularly those who question or challenge the CPV or call for human rights and democratic reforms, resulting in prison sentences, at times harsh. Prisoners are sometimes transferred to remote prisons, thus making it difficult for families and friends to visit and support them.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

The judiciary is not independent and is under the control and influence of the government and the CPV. Pre-trial detention is sometimes long – often exceeding months – and trials are often hasty and routinely fail to uphold the principle of presumption of innocence, especially in politically motivated cases. Defendants and their defence lawyers are sometimes denied the right to a defence and are given insufficient time for preparations or lack relevant information about the charges. Families of defendants, foreign diplomats, and journalists are often blocked from attending trials. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index in 2015 gave Vietnam low scores on judicial constraints on government powers, due process of law, and government influence in civil and criminal justice.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Religious freedom is protected under both the Vietnamese Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a State party. However, broadly worded exception clauses in the Constitution and related administrative decrees and ordinances place limitations on and grant local authorities broad discretionary powers to prohibit, restrict, and supervise the exercise of the right to religious freedom. There is a state-controlled system of registration for religious groups and the official recognition that comes with registration allows for greater space to operate in. The religious minorities that are denied registration face significant difficulties as non-recognised groups.

Religious persecution particularly targets Catholic Redemptorists, Hoa Hao Buddhists, Falun Gong followers and other religious minority groups. Their right to practice their respective religion in public and to print and disseminate religious materials are denied or limited. Officials often label such activities as a challenge to the ‘unity’ of the state. Individuals have been forced to renounce their religious beliefs and followers of minority religions have been prohibited from attending religious events, both inside and outside of Vietnam.

The draft Law on Belief and Religion places limitations on freedom of religion or belief that go beyond those permitted under international human rights law. It introduces onerous registration requirements, excessive state control over and interference in religious organisations’ internal affairs, and overly broad and ambiguous language which may facilitate discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement.

The right to the freedom of expression

Freedom of expression faces a myriad of challenges in Vietnam. The government adopts administrative, regulatory, legal, and technological measures to control access to and the content of information. Television, radio and printed outlets are almost entirely state-owned or run by the authorities in Vietnam. Following the amendments to the Constitution in November 2013, the government has issued several decrees and directives aimed at controlling online information. The newly amended Press Law increased the number of broadly defined “prohibited acts” and continues to cement state control over journalists. The newly adopted Law on Access to Information (2016) provides the state with wide discretionary powers to restrict access and withhold information on vaguely defined grounds.

A number of recently adopted decrees, initiated by the top leaders, restrict freedom of expression online and offline. Decree 72 – in effect since September 2013 – states that social media should only be used for sharing ‘personal information’. The decree in effect renders news sharing and the blogging activities of writers critical of government actions or policies illegal. Similar to broadly worded provisions under the Penal Code, Decree 174 prohibits so-called ‘anti-State propaganda’ and ‘reactionary ideologies’ in social media and in practice is used to criminalise peaceful online expression.

Facebook has been intermittently blocked since 2009 and personal blogs challenging the CPV or the army are sometimes shut down or blocked. Writers are also targeted with malware and exposed to extensive digital and physical surveillance and attacks. Facebook was reportedly blocked in May 2016 before and during the national assembly elections and ahead of US President Barack Obama’s state visit.

Despite the government’s information control policy, online freedom of expression has flourished thanks to the spread of information and communication technologies. Approximately one third to 45 % of Vietnam’s population is estimated to have Internet access. An even greater percentage of youths in Vietnam’s bigger cities, including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have Internet access. More than three million individuals host blogs in Vietnam. An increasing number of independent writers contribute to underground publications or publish their own texts on the Internet, covering a wide range of topics, including human rights and democracy.

For additional information on the work of bloggers and restrictions on online communications, see attached Civil Rights Defenders’ April 2015 Report on Vietnam. We Will Not be Silenced

The right to freedom of assembly and association

The right to freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed under Article 25 of the 2013 Constitution. In practice, public protests are rare due to tight social controls and severe government reprisals against organisers and participants, but they have become more frequent in recent years. Increasing number of protests have been staged by farmers or rural residents to protest land confiscations and by those opposing China’s maritime claims in disputed waters. State security forces, including the army, regularly crack down on people opposing ‘development projects’ and land seizures.

In May 2016, peaceful demonstrations broke out in cities and towns across the country in response to the government’s poor handling of an ecological disaster that has decimated fish stocks off the central coastal provinces. While the initial protests were tolerated, subsequent ones were met with excessive use of force and the arrest and detention of hundreds of protesters.

In the early 1990s, the government began drafting a Law on Associations. A draft released in late 2005 included extremely restrictive and control-centered provisions and was fiercely opposed by a diverse range of associations. The law was shelved in 2006. In the absence of a law on association, the registration, management, operation and funding of civil society organisations, research institutes, and other non-profit entities are governed by highly restrictive decrees that grant far reaching discretionary powers to government officials and prohibit a wide range of activities. Non-governmental organisations are required to register in order to operate legally inside Vietnam. To minimise government interference or dictates, some groups do not apply for, and operate without, registration and are thus more vulnerable to government harassment. The only formal trade union is the Vietnam General Conference of Labour (VGCL), which is not independent of the Communist Party of Vietnam. No trade unions are permitted unless they are endorsed by and affiliated with the VGCL.  The UN Human Rights Committee has expressed concern over the lack of any law on political parties and that in fact no political party other than the Communist Party is permitted.

The right to political rights

The enjoyment of political rights is curtailed under Vietnam’s one-party political system. The Communist Party has a firm monopoly on political power. This monopoly is reflected in Article 4 of the recently amended 2013 Constitution, which states that the CPV is “the force leading the State and society.” Members of Vietnam’s legislature, the National Assembly, are elected in periodic elections. However, the candidates are vetted by the Vietnam Fatherland Front an umbrella “mass organisation” that is controlled by the CPV and the government. As a result, voters do not have a genuine choice nor can citizens freely stand for and be elected to public offices, despite Vietnam’s obligations under the ICCPR to ensure free and fair elections. Results from a UN-supported public opinion survey in 2015 on public governance indicate that participation at local levels remains limited.

Elections to the National Assembly are held every five years. In the May 2011 election, the Communist Party of Vietnam won 454 out of 500 seats. Official statistics from the government claim a 99 % voter turnout. International observers have questioned these numbers. For the 2011-2016 term, one fourth of all seats in the National Assembly are held by women. Ethnic minority representatives hold 16 % of seats. Dozens of activists nominated themselves as independent candidates in the 2016 national assembly elections and an overwhelming majority of them have been summarily disqualified during the state-controlled vetting process.

State control over the media, tight restrictions of information online and offline, and reprisals against government critics undermine the right to participate in public affairs. Despite these challenges, human rights defenders, journalists, intellectuals, and, increasingly, some former CPV officials have publicly called for greater respect for political rights and rule of law reforms. The Internet has also become a de facto civil society space in which rigorous discussions of public affairs are not only possible, but also widespread.

Endemic corruption seriously undermines good governance in Vietnam and is one of the principal triggers of public protest and criticisms of the government. In Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, Vietnam ranked 112 out of 168 countries in the world. The 2015 Viet Nam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI), a policy monitoring tool measuring performance in local governance, shows that “there was a substantial drop in scores in the transparency and control of corruption dimensions, and a significant decline in local level participation and vertical accountability.”

Government information is opaque in Vietnam and citizens wishing to obtain such information find it difficult to do so. Vietnam currently does not have a freedom of information law, but the Ministry of Justice has been drafting a law on access to information, with international assistance.

The right to protection against discrimination

There are non-discrimination clauses in the 2013 Constitution and various laws, but Vietnam lacks a comprehensive non-discrimination law while some discriminatory provisions are still found in some laws and decrees. Limited access to formal employment, low level of access to legal aid, low-level of participation in political and public life, gender wage gap, gender stereotypes, and prevalence of domestic violence are some of the key barriers to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

There are 54 officially recognised ethnic groups. The Kinh account for 85.7% of the population. Despite progress in poverty reduction, the poverty rate is considerably higher among ethnic minorities than among the Kinh. Ethnic minority women in rural areas face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. The Khmer Krom community is particularly vulnerable to discrimination. Many people of Khmer Krom origin have fled Vietnam to Cambodia, and some have continued on to Thailand, where they apply for refugee status at the UNHCR. Religious minority groups also face various forms of discrimination, including violations of their right to freely practice their faith. In 2010, a UN expert on minority rights visited Vietnam and concluded that minorities still face obstacles in enjoying their right to education, religion freedom, and civil rights.

There have been some progress in and greater space for the discussion of the rights of LGBT persons, but challenges remain. In late 2013, a government decree removed administrative fines for holding same-sex weddings. The National Assembly amended the Law on Marriage and Family in 2014 and removed a provision prohibiting same-sex marriage. However, there is no law prohibiting discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and such discrimination persists in family life, education, employment, and healthcare. The rights of same-sex couples still do not receive legal protection, including legal recognition of their marriage. In late November 2015, the National Assembly amended the Civil Code to legalise sex reassignment surgery and recognise the right of transgender persons to change their legal name and gender after surgery. It remains to be seen how the amended Civil Code will be enforced.

The Role of Civil Rights Defenders in Vietnam

Civil Rights Defenders closely monitors the human rights developments and the work of civil society actors in Vietnam, as well as Vietnam’s engagement with international human rights mechanisms. Civil Rights Defenders highlights the work of and challenges facing human rights defenders in articles, op-eds, and joint statements. It has also contributed to campaigns for the release of political prisoners through international advocacy. Civil Rights Defenders also supports the annual Viet Pride events celebrating diversity and equality through public events and a bike rally through the streets of Hanoi.


Categories: Country Reports.
Tags: Country Report, SouthEast Asia, and Vietnam.
Regions: Southeast Asia and Vietnam.