This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Vietnam on Monday announced its candidacy to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, but claims by the country’s foreign minister that the one-party communist state fully protects “human rights and fundamental freedoms” drew swift scorn and disbelief from rights experts.
Rights and freedoms can be protected and promoted only when a country defends itself against epidemic disease, foreign minister Pham Binh Minh told a high-level meeting of the Geneva-based Rights Council’s 46th Regular Session.
“[This] is the best way to ensure that each and every member of the society can fully enjoy their human rights,” Pham said, quoted by Vietnamese state media.
“We continue to put emphasis on the protection and promotion of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of our people, even in this most difficult of times.”
Membership in the UN Human Rights Council is being sought by Vietnam for the 2023-2025 term, Pham said, adding that Vietnam has been “endorsed as the ASEAN candidate for this post” in competition with candidates from other countries in the U.N.’s Asia-Pacific representational grouping.
Nguyen Van Dai–a Vietnamese lawyer and democracy advocate now living in Germany—voiced surprise and concern at Pham’s announcement, calling Vietnam Southeast Asia’s most oppressive state.
“Surely, Vietnam can’t run for [membership on] the Human Rights Council,” Nguyen told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “For the last four years, Vietnam has become Southeast Asia’s most oppressive country, even replacing Burma as the country holding the most political prisoners.”
“In addition, Vietnam’s trade partners like the European Union, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United States, and Australia have frequently called on it to release the activists now being held in Vietnam’s prisons, and to improve its record on human rights,” he said.
In an annual report examining the rights records of countries around the world, the U.S. State Department this year said that Vietnam had been responsible in 2019 for “significant” violations of human rights, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearance; torture by government agents; [and] arbitrary arrests and detentions.”
Restrictions on freedom of expression on the internet and in the press were also seen, along with “substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association,” the State Department said.
Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent deteriorated sharply last year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party Congress in January.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 175 out of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Around 25 journalists and bloggers are being held in Vietnam’s jails, “where mistreatment is common,” the Paris-based watchdog group said.
Other countries widely condemned for rights abuses at home, and currently serving as member states on the Council, include China, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, and Eritrea.
The United States, which left the Rights Council in June 2018 after objecting to what then-President Trump called the group’s unfair and disproportionate targeting of Israel in Council resolutions, has meanwhile now expressed its intention to return—first as an observer in the next two-year term and eventually as a full member.
Government defense rejected
Vietnamese rights activist Pham Le Vuong Cac meanwhile rejected a government defense submitted to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on Feb. 4 of actions taken by authorities following a deadly land clash a year earlier at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi, in which village elder Le Dinh Khinh was shot dead by police.
Kinh, 84, was killed during the early-morning Jan. 9, 2020 raid on the village by 3,000 security officers intervening in a long-running dispute over a military construction site about 25 miles south of the capital, Hanoi.
Le’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, were later sentenced to death for murder in connection with the deaths of three police officers who were killed in the clash when they were attacked with petrol bombs and fell into a concrete shaft while running between two houses.
They were among a group of 29 villagers tried for their roles in the incident. Other punishments handed out by the court included a life sentence and other sentences ranging from six years to 15-months’ probation.
Writing on Feb. 4 in response to concerns expressed by the Special Procedures Branch of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Vietnam’s permanent mission to U.N. offices in Geneva said the trials had been handled as “a normal criminal case,” with the rights of defendants ensured and all procedures carried out according to Vietnamese law.
Authorities’ mass arrest of Dong Tam villagers, including Kinh’s wife Can Thi Theu, and of independent journalist Pham Doan Trang, who had posted articles about the deadly raid, had “completely violated international standards of human rights,” though, Pham Le Vuong Cac said.
“It’s nothing new for Vietnam to argue against concerns criticizing its detention of activists. It has been the government’s policy for a long time not to be silent, but to speak up to assert its own view of things,” he said.
“When a country becomes a member of the U.N., it should comply with the provisions of international law,” Pham said.
While all land in Vietnam is ultimately held by the state, land confiscations have become a flashpoint as residents accuse the government of pushing small landholders aside in favor of lucrative real estate projects, and of paying too little in compensation to farming families displaced by development.