Vietnam: Amended Constitution a Missed Opportunity on Rights

(New York) – The amended constitution Vietnam adopted on November 28, 2013, failed to address popular aspirations for change and reform, Human Rights Watch said today. Vietnam’s donors and development partners should redouble their efforts to press the Vietnamese government for constitutional and legal reforms to protect basic rights, such as freedom of expression and association.

When the amendment process began on January 2, the Vietnamese government and National Assembly urged members of the public to make recommendations for changing the constitution. Hundreds of thousands of people responded, in an unprecedented display of public participation in a legal reform process in Vietnam. Many comments were critical of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, with large numbers of calls for ending one-party rule and instituting genuine periodic elections. On October 22, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Vietnam’s National Assembly urging it to accept amendments to promote and protect rights. 

“While proposed amendments were vigorously debated, hard-liners prevailed and the new constitution has tightened the ruling party’s grip,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of responding to popular demands and international human rights commitments, Vietnam remains a one-party state with a constitution that allows authorities to restrict basic rights on vague grounds whenever it suits them.”

On November 28, 98 percent of the members of the National Assembly, 90 percent of them members of the Communist Party, voted for the government-sponsored draft. While taking account of officially collated comments that stayed within bounds defined by the Communist Party, they ignored suggestions from the Vietnamese public for fundamental changes to bring the constitution in line with international human rights standards. In the end, the National Assembly made very few changes to what the government put forward.

The amended constitution will come into force on January 1, 2014. It includes two key changes to strengthen the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Article 4 makes the party the vanguard and representative not only of the Vietnamese working class, but of the whole Vietnamese people and nation, further narrowing the legal space to exercise the right to pluralistic and freely contested elections. Article 65 follows the government lead in enshrining a new legal requirement for Vietnam’s armed forces to be absolutely loyal to the Communist Party.

New clauses in articles 16, 31, 102, and 103 appear to allow freedom of expression and other basic rights and promise to end arbitrary arrests of critics and political trials on trumped-up charges. But these provisions have been effectively negated by loopholes and weak guarantees in other provisions. Article 14 states that the authorities can override human rights guarantees in other passages if they deem it necessary for national defence, national security, public order, the security of society, or social morality.

Similarly, reaffirmation of rights like freedom of religion in article 24 and freedom of speech in article 25 are accompanied by qualifications allowing vague and broad legal restrictions. Articles 70, 88, and 105 make possible continued tight Communist Party control of the judiciary, meaning there is still no guarantee of fair and impartial trials.

“The amended constitution leaves the door wide open to the continued use of harsh laws and politically controlled courts to target activists and critics,” Adams said.

The passage of the amended constitution is the first major Vietnamese government human rights move since it was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to the United Nations Human Rights Council on November 12.

“The new constitution betrays Vietnam’s claim when it sought election to the United Nations Human Rights Council that it will ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,’” Adams said. “The Constitution is a big disappointment for the Vietnamese people and leaves the government with a very long way to go if it wants Vietnam to become known as a human-rights-respecting country.”