Vietnam: Communist Party Tightens Grip

(New York) – Activists were increasingly targeted by the Vietnamese authorities in 2013, worsening a trend of politically motivated convictions against peaceful critics, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014.

“Escalating repression is putting the Vietnamese government on a collision course with an increasingly politically aware and active population,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign governments should use all diplomatic means to pressure Vietnam to listen to the voices of the country’s people, who are demanding an end to old-style one-party rule.”

In the 667-page World Report 2014, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa.  Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

On November 28, the National Assembly adopted an amended Vietnamese constitution that disappointed those hoping for significant reforms, instead strengthening Communist Party political domination. The Communist Party has presided over a one-party state since the country was unified in 1975.

Human rights provisions in the constitution were watered down with loopholes that allow the state to criminalize even peaceful expression, association, and assembly.

While it maintained its monopoly on state power in 2013, the party faces growing public discontent over slowing economic growth, widespread corruption, and a lack of basic freedoms. Denial of rights and endemic official corruption are widely seen as stifling Vietnam’s political and economic progress.

At the end of 2013, Human Rights Watch estimated that Vietnam is holding some 150-200 known people in detention because of the exercise of their fundamental human rights, including lowland Vietnamese and upland ethnic minority prisoners, some of whom were detained at least in part in connection with their religious activities. The total included at least 63 political prisoners convicted by politically controlled courts in 2013, an increase over the roughly 40 sentenced in 2012, which in turn exceeded the numbers sentenced in 2011 and 2010. The government has consistently used vague penal code provisions to convict these peaceful critics.

Dialing back digital, religious freedom

Enhancing already extensive government powers to punish and otherwise deter digital freedom, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on September 1, 2013, put into force Decree 72, which contains provisions legalizing content-filtering and censorship, and outlawing vaguely defined “prohibited acts.”

In January 2013, the prime minister put Decree 92 into effect, further extending controls on religious groups via inclusion of onerous requirements for official permission to practice religious belief and vague prohibitions on religious worship that effectively allow the authorities to selectively prohibit any religious activities they dislike. In its enforcement actions, the government monitors, harasses, and sometimes violently cracks down on religious groups that operate outside of official, government-registered and government-controlled religious institutions.

Positive moves in 2013 included the signing of the Convention Against Torture. The government has pledged that this will be ratified within a year. The National Assembly decriminalized same-sex marriage, though disappointed campaigners by failing to legalize it.  

“Instead of putting its critics in prison, the Vietnamese government should engage with their ideas, and accept that one-party states should be consigned to the dustbins of history,” Adams said.