Civil groups urged the European Parliament to step up pressure on Vietnam to improve its dismal human and labor rights records during a review of the implementation of the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement.
The call came during a conference in Brussels on Feb. 28, led by Marianne Vind, vice chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with countries in Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
The free trade agreement, which came into force on Aug. 1, 2020, includes a chapter on trade and sustainable development that entails commitments by the EU and Vietnam to promote labor rights, environmental protection and sustainable development, as defined by international conventions and multilateral environmental agreements.
Representatives from Vietnam Workers’ Defenders, Reporters Without Borders, the Swiss-Vietnam Committee, and the U.S.-based Viet Tan party expressed grave concerns about the worsening human rights situation in Vietnam since the EU and Vietnam ratified the free trade agreement, or EVFTA, which abolishes most custom duties within 10 years.
They pointed to the Vietnamese government’s various violations with regard to freedom of speech, press freedom and workers’ rights that run counter to the provisions included in the agreement.
Since the agreement's signing, human rights abuses have become worse in the one-party communist state, said Helena Huong Nguyen, a conference organizer and member of Viet Tan based in Denmark.
“In the past, only political dissidents were imprisoned, but over recent years, civil society and environmental activists, and even those interested in trade agreements, have also been jailed,” she told Radio Free Asia during a post-conference interview. “The Vietnamese government has even raided online voices of dissent.”
Use of Penal Code, Cybersecurity Law
A Vietnamese guest speaker who attended the conference virtually and requested anonymity for safety reasons, said that he and many human rights activists in Vietnam had hoped the free trade agreement would bring about not only economic benefits, but also improvements in the human rights situation because of the EU’s influence when it comes to such rights.
But instead, they experienced increased suppression of freedom of speech and press freedom along with further deteriorating human rights over the past two years, he said.
Vietnam’s 2018 Cybersecurity Law allowed has authorities to impose administrative fines on people who write stories and commentaries deemed malicious or that distorted Vietnamese Communist Party guidelines and government policy and law, he said, by way of example.
At the same time, the government has used the country’s 2015 Penal Code to its advantage, especially Articles 117 and 331, to stifle political dissent, he added.
Article 117 forbids the distribution of propaganda against the state, while Article 331 criminalizes “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state.” Vietnamese authorities routinely use the statutes to attack those who speak out in defense of human rights.
The Vietnamese government arrested 40 political dissidents and human rights activists in 2019, 60 in 2020, and 25 in 2021 and 2022, said the guest speaker, attributing the lower arrest rates in the last two years to the increased caution that other activists exercised to avoid being hauled away.
'Too afraid of the consequences'
Julie Majerczak, representative to European institutions for Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, said press freedom in Vietnam has been on the decline since the free trade agreement was ratified.
Vietnam ranked 174th out of 180 countries on the group’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index and became the world’s fourth largest prison for journalists after North Korea, Myanmar and China, Majerczak said.
The number of arrested and convicted journalists had decreased lately because authorities had imprisoned nearly all independent journalists, she said.
Blogs are no longer widely used as they were a decade ago among journalists to criticize government policies because they are too afraid of the consequences, Majerczak said.
Additionally, the government has been increasing its censorship of traditional, mainstream media, she said.
Majerczak cited the cases of professional journalist Pham Doan Trang and citizen journalist Do Cong Duong. Trang, RSF’s award winner in 2019, was sentenced to nine years in prison for “propagandizing against the state,” and Duong died because of harsh jail conditions during his prison term.
“The EU should not cooperate economically with Vietnam until Hanoi improves its human rights record,” she said. “The EU should use the EVFTA to pressure Hanoi to release journalists and improve detention conditions for human rights defenders.”
Preventing trade unions
Huy Nguyen of Vietnam Workers’ Defenders, a U.S.-based organization that seeks to protect workers’ rights in Vietnam, said the government has taken many measures to prevent laborers from establishing independent trade unions.
The country’s current Labor Code violates International Labor Organization conventions because it includes provisions for establishing trade unions, he added.
Nguyen accused the Vietnamese government of violating a free trade agreement provision that requires the establishment of a Domestic Advisory Group. The civil society component is meant to ensure that employer and workers organizations, business groups and environmental groups cano submit views or recommendations on the FTA’s trade and sustainable development chapter.
In July 2021, Vietnam police arrested journalist Mai Phan Loi of the Center for Media in Educating Community and attorney Dang Dinh Bach of Center for Legal Studies & Policy for Sustainable Development because their groups registered to become members of Vietnam’s Domestic Advisory Group, Nguyen said.
Shortly after that, Hanoi formed Vietnam’s Domestic Advisory Group with three members, two of whom were under the government’s control, he said.
In January 2022, Vietnam added three more members, although one did not have the independence required by the free trade agreement, Nguyen said. The same month, Hanoi sentenced Loi to four years in prison and Bach to five years, both on charges of “tax evasion.”
The EU should request that Vietnam review the members of its Domestic Advisory Group and allow representatives from truly independent civil society organizations to join the group, said Nguyen. He also urged Hanoi to release Loi and Bach.
As a newly elected member of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, Vietnam should take concrete action to improve its human rights record, said Sébastien Desfayes, a Swiss parliamentarian and chairman of the Swiss-Vietnam Committee.
That would include the release of activists, free elections, respect for universal human rights and the right to an independent judiciary, he said.
He also called on Vietnam to eliminate articles 117, 118 and 331 of the Penal Code, which authorities use to suppress freedom of speech.
RFA could not reach Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs by phone or email for comment.
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