Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Vietnam


There has been some progress in Vietnam's efforts to strengthen civil and political rights during 2008, but there have also been setbacks during the year. The government is pursuing a legal and judicial reform programme to strengthen the rule of law and the National Assembly has demonstrated its growing influence over the law-making and decision-making process. Proposals have been put forward to reduce significantly the scope of the death penalty. Over recent years, there has been greater religious freedom, with the government recognising more congregations, though land disputes remain a source of tension with the Catholic Church. Concerns remain about restrictions on freedom of expression. We have seen a clear tightening of control over the media in 2008. Vietnam's record on promoting economic and social rights has generally been positive. Economic reforms coupled with equitable development principles have brought about substantial improvements in the social and economic rights for Vietnamese people. Continued progress in this area could be threatened if reform of bureaucratic regulation is not carried out, and corruption tackled. The government has publicly committed to fight corruption, although concrete measures have yet to be taken

Current concerns

Freedom of expression

The right to freedom of opinion, speech and the press are guaranteed under the Vietnamese constitution. In practice, individuals' rights are severely restricted by specific provisions of the Vietnamese Penal Code, which give the government scope to sentence individuals for exercising these rights.

Human rights defenders

Amnesty International estimates that in 2008 at least 7 political activists were brought to trial and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Restrictions on public demonstrations continue. In April, 14 individuals were detained as a precautionary measure before the arrival of the Olympic torch in Ho Chi Minh City. In September, a number of individuals known to be politically active in the area of land rights were detained and questioned.

Media freedoms

All domestic media in Vietnam is controlled by the state. Reporting on sensitive issues is tightly controlled, and the press remains subject to self-censorship.

A tightening of control over the media was evident during 2008. In September, a prominent internet blogger was imprisoned on tax evasion charges. Vietnam's international reputation was not helped by an incident the same month in which an American journalist in Hanoi was injured by police at a land rights demonstration. In October, two journalists with two of Vietnam's most popular newspapers were tried (and one imprisoned) for their role in publicising a government corruption case in 2006.

Freedom of religion

Vietnam's authorities are continuing to register new congregations (although progress on this has been slow and not uniform throughout Vietnam or between different Buddhist religious groups). In May, Vietnam hosted the UN Visak Day (Buddhist memorial day) in Hanoi.

Tensions have continued between the authorities and religious groups. Religious figures remain on the EU's list of prisoners of concern. In July, government involvement in the funeral for the head of the banned United Buddhist Church of Vietnam caused anger among his followers. Throughout 2008, Catholics have protested the use by the government of land they claim belongs to the Church. This issue has complicated the distinction between those detained for protesting at the government's position on land disputes – a civil freedom – and those arrested on the basis of their religion – religious freedom.

Death penalty

Vietnam has one of the highest execution rates in the world. Official statistics are a state secret. However, the government has told us that approximately 100 people were sentenced to death in 2007, with about half of the sentences carried out. In the penal code 29 offences carry the death penalty, including financial crimes such as corruption and embezzlement, also drugs offences, which probably constitute the majority of cases. Amnesty International estimated that 83 death sentences were handed down for drug trafficking offences alone in 2008.

The Vietnamese authorities have announced their plans to reduce the scope of the death penalty in Vietnam. A revision of the penal code currently before the National Assembly proposes to reduce the number of offences attracting the death penalty to 12.

Governance and accountability

Vietnam has extensive strategies for legal and judicial reform up to 2020. A National Bar Association is due to be established in early 2009, and the Ministry of Justice is overseeing a programme of legal training, with the aim to triple the number of lawyers in Vietnam. The judicial strategy aims to improve the system of judicial appointments and conduct. The Vietnamese government's commitment at the central level to increase access to justice and to promote fair trial is clear. The challenge will be implementing the reforms in practice and uniformly across the country. Currently, defendants are often denied sufficient time to make their defence, there is little use of case law, outcomes are difficult to predict and access to legal aid is poor. Judges are appointed by the government and there are insufficient controls to ensure their decisions are fully independent.

The overall trend in accountability has been positive. The National Assembly is an increasingly powerful political institution. Progress in transparency has been evident: the annual state budget and audit by the State Audit Office of Vietnam is now publicly available on the government website. The government has publicly committed itself to tackling corruption, but has yet to demonstrate that commitment in terms of action.

Recent research shows that engagement between civil society groups and state authorities has improved. The general political and legal environment has become more conducive to civil society-state interactions. It has become easier for organisations to form and have legal standing.

UK action

Our main forum for raising human rights concerns is the biannual EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. The last meeting was held in Hanoi in December, during which a list of mutual forward actions were agreed. The EU also conducted a number of ad hoc interventions, including the journalists arrested for reporting the government corruption case. The EU produces an annual report on human rights in Vietnam to inform EU policy, and its diplomats regularly visit the provinces to obtain an understanding of current developments more generally.

The UK has agreed human rights benchmarks jointly with the Vietnamese government through the 10-year Development Partnership Arrangement Annual Consultative Group Meetings with other donors to ensure that human rights remain part of the donor dialogue with government.

The UK supports the government and other agencies in Vietnam in the following areas: drafting a law on access to information; working with the General Department of Police on criminal investigation standards; informing the debate on the death penalty; establishing a civil society forum; journalist capacity-building; and strengthening the capacity of the National Assembly

Alongside these projects, we have engaged with the government of Vietnam via high-level visits. In March, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the UK and agreed that development, including on human rights issues, would be a priority area for our co-operation. In September, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt Hon Jack Straw, visited Vietnam and signed a memorandum of understanding on legal and judicial co-operation.

The EU keeps a list of prisoners and detainees of concern, which is raised with the Vietnamese authorities during the twice-yearly dialogue and at other suitable opportunities. As of October, 43 people remained on the EU's prisoner of concern list, with a further five otherwise detained under house or pagoda arrest.

In March, following high-level lobbying by the UK, the Vietnamese President agreed to commute the death sentence of a British national, Le Manh Luong.

Forward look

We will continue our dialogue with the government of Vietnam, in particular on media freedom, anti-corruption and strengthening democracy and accountability.

Our support via dialogue and projects will be targeted to promote freedom of expression and the media, to reduce the scope of the death penalty, to provide access to justice, and to strengthen the capacity of the National Assembly and civil society. Areas proposed for joint work under the new memorandum of understanding on judicial and legal co-operation include prison management, media legislation and capacity building for the National Bar Association.

The UK will continue to engage the Vietnamese government to push forward commitments via the Annual Consultative Group, the Poverty Reduction Support Credits agenda, the annual review of the Development Partnership Arrangement and the anti-corruption dialogue.

The UK and other EU member states will also continue to undertake field missions and maintain contact with human rights defenders, seeking access to prisoners of concern and attendance at trials.


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