GENEVA, 5 February 2014 (Vietnam Committee) – Civil society representatives, international human rights organizations and members of government delegations from the USA, Canada, the European Union, the UK, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Finland met at a Conference on “Banned Civil Society Voices” at the United Nations in Geneva on Tuesday 4 February 2014.
Organized by the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), with the support of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the event provided information and recommendations for government delegations before they examine Vietnam’ human rights record at its second Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council today.
Alongside panelists Vo Van Ai, President of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and Thich Giac Dang, President of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) in the USA, the VCHR presented exclusive audio testimonies from two prominent dissidents under house arrest in Vietnam, the UBVC leader Thich Quang Do and Buddhist youth leader Le Cong Cau.
In his testimony, sent clandestinely from the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery where he is under de facto house arrest, Thich Quang Do addressed the governnment delegates: “Tomorrow, Vietnam will be examined at the Human Rights Council for its second Universal Periodic Review. You will hear the Vietnamese government’s report on human rights. But you will not hear the voices of the victims. I am speaking here for those whose voices are stifled in Vietnam simply because of their dissenting opinions or beliefs”.
“My own case is a typical example. I have spent the past three decades under different forms of detention – ten years in internal exile, seven years in prison and the rest under house arrest without charge. What is my “crime”? That of calling on Vietnam to respect its people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, religion and belief”.
The UBCV leader, who is a nominee for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, added: “To be deprived of one’s freedom is intolerable under any circumstances. To be under house arrest without charge, isolated and never knowing when you will be released, is a most cruel form of torture, both mental and physical. In Vietnam today, hundreds of dissidents and human rights defenders are subjected to the torture of house arrest without any due process of law. Last year, Vietnam signed the UN Convention Against Torture. We hoped this was a step forward. But in reality, nothing has changed”.
He called on governments at tomorrow’s UPR to “speak out for those whose voices are stifled in Vietnam. I urge you to press for concrete improvements, such as the recognition of the legal status of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and all other non-recognized religions, the release of religious and political prisoners, and the abolition – once and for all – of the practice of arbitrary house arrest without charge”.
Leader the Buddhist Youth Movement (BYM) Le Cong Cau sent an audio testimony from Hue, where he haas been under house arrest without charge since 1st January 2014. Noting that the BYM is an educational movement founded in the 1940s, and has a membership of 300,000 in Vietnam today, Le Cong Cau described the ongoing crack-dowwn on his movement:
“Recently, [the BYM] began to include human rights education as part of our activities. At a summer camp in central Vietnam this year, we held a seminar on Internet freedom to discuss the role of new technologies in expanding our knowledge. Vietnam is a signatory to United Nations instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and human rights are enshrined in our Constitution. We believe that young people should learn about human rights if they are to become good citizens of Vietnam”.
“Because of this, the authorities have begun to crack-down on our movement. As I speak to you today, one hundred members of the BYM in Hue are under house arrest without any justification or charge, simply for exercising their legitimate right to association and peaceful assembly”.
“I am launching this message at the United Nations today as a cry of alarm. This may be my last opportunity to speak out, as I am told that I may be arrested in the coming days. I do not fear imprisonment. I take full responsibility for my legitimate and peaceful acts, and I am ready to face the consequences, whatever they may be. But I am appalled that Vietnam can treat its citizens so unfairly, and I refuse to remain silent in face of such injustice”.
“My movement is committed to education, for we believe that knowledge and understanding form the very basis of progressive and dynamic society. The right to education is enshrined in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Vietnam is a state party. By repressing my members and prohibiting our activities, Vietnam is violating its binding commitments to its citizens and to the international community”.
Le Cong Cau called on government delegations at Vietnam’s UPR to raise the plight of human rights defenders in Vietnam, in particular by calling for the repeal of vaguely-worded “national security” provisions in the Criminal Code that criminalize the right to free expression, and bring Vietnan’s domestic laws into line witth the international treaties it has ratified, in accordance with the Law on the Ratification and Implementation of International Treaties adopted by Vietnam’s National Assembly in 2005. “Human rights must be protected by the rule of law, otherwise, they are meaningless. Vietnamese human rights defenders should be entitled to pursue their activities freely, and not be forced to live in silence and slavery by the one-Party State”.
VCHR President Vo Van Ai deplored the lack of progress in Vietnam since its last UPR in 2009, despite its promises to implement 93 recommendations made by UN member states. In fact, he said, “Vietnam’s human rights performance over the past four years has been catastrophic for human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists”. The VCHR has documented cases of 160 peaceful activists sentenced under “national security” charges between May 2009 and June 2013 to a total of 1,502 years in prison, and many others have been arrested since then.
He described Vietnam’s crack-down on freedom of expression, which includes Police brutality, arbitrary arrests and the adoption of new restictive laws on the Internet and press. Citing cases of blogger Dieu Cay, sentenced to 12 years for “anti-socialist propaganda”, singers Viet Khang and Tran Vu An Binh to four and six years for writing protest songs, journalist Hoang Khuong to four years prison for denouncing corruption, Vo Van Ai said: “Those who speak freely, via the Internet or traditional media, risk harassments, arrest, long prison sentences, beatings and even sexual harassments. The message is clear – keep silent, or face repression. ”
Whereas Vietnam has promised at its last UPR in 2009 to improve legal protection for freedom of expression, Vo Van Ai stated that the authorities had done just the opposite: “All legislation adopted since 2009 has undermined the right to free expression and given the State greater powers to censor and control information and arbitrarily detain its critics. In a nutshell, Vietnam can censor anything and everything in total impunity”.
Thich Giac Dang noted the current severe repression against the banned UBCV: “UBCV members suffer harassments and repression in every aspect of their daily lives – house arrest, police surveillance, denial of communications and the right to travel. Police threaten Buddhist followers that they will lose their jobs or their children be expelled from school if they continue to follow the “reactionary” UBCV”.
However, Thich Giac Dang stresed that he has not come to speak only about religious freedom, but about human rights defenders. “As a Buddhist monk, I believe in the practice of compassion. Under an authoritarian regime like Vietnam, where people suffer from denial of their basic rights, the only way to practice compassion is to become a human rights defender and engage in the struggle to protect and promote human rights for all”.
“Human rights defenders in Vietnam pay a very high price for their ideals. They risk harassment, beatings, police surveillance. Many have been sentenced at unfair trials and are now serving long sentences in held in prisons and labor camps under the most cruel of circumstances. It is about them, the prisoners of Vietnam, and about the harsh conditions that they endure, that I wish to speak to you today, and hope you will raise their plight whilst examining Vietnam at its second Universal Periodic Review tomorrow”.
Thich Giac Dang described the harsh conditions in the camps, andd discrimination against political prisoners, which led to a recent hunger strike by prisoners in Section 2 of Z30A Camp in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai to protest inhumane detention conditions, and other riots in A 20 prison camp in Phu Yen.
He raised the plight of long term prisoner Nguyen Huu Cau, Hoa Hao Buddhists Mai Thi Dung and Do Thi Minh Hanh, writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia and blogger Dieu Cay, who are all subjected to extremely harsh treatment and frequently denied medical caree. He urged government delegations to press Vietnam to urgently improve detention conditions at the UPR session today.