A bilateral human rights dialogue between the EU and Vietnam is scheduled to be held in Brussels on April 6, 2022. “The EU has claimed that closer ties with Vietnam would lead to human rights improvements, but Hanoi’s repression has only intensified since the 2020 trade deal,” said Claudio Francavilla, EU advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Brussels should no longer just tolerate the Vietnamese government’s blatant violations of its human rights obligations and commitments.” In a submission to the EU ahead of the dialogue, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to insist on clear, concrete, and measurable human rights benchmarks or deliverables in line with the EU’s own guidelines, and to set out consequences if violations continue. Human Rights Watch highlighted a worrying spike in arrests of social and environmental activists on alleged tax evasion charges. In July 2021, Vietnamese authorities arrested Mai Phan Loi, a journalist, and Dang Dinh Bach, a lawyer, on trumped-up tax evasion charges as they were trying to join the Domestic Advisory Group, a body the EU and Vietnam agreed to set up to allow independent civil society to monitor the implementation of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA). In January 2022, courts convicted both and sentenced Mai Phan Loi to four years in prison, and Dang Dinh Bach to five years. Also in January, the police arrested the prominent environmentalist Nguy Thi Khanh, whose 2017-2021 project E-Enhance was funded by the EU, also on an alleged tax evasion charge. In November 2019, the authorities arrested Pham Chi Dung, a journalist, most likely in connection to his outreach to the European Parliament urging it to require human rights improvements in Vietnam before approving the trade deal, in line with a call by dozens of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. But in February 2020, the European Parliament gave its consent to the deal, albeit raising serious concerns over Vietnam’s human rights record and formulating calls for improvement – which, to date, remain unheard. In January 2021, Pham Chi Dung was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, triggering new expressions of concern from the European Parliament and the EU’s foreign policy branch, but with no policy reaction or consequences for the bilateral relations. Vietnam currently holds at least 153 political prisoners. In 2021 alone, the courts convicted at least 38 people for criticizing the government and sentenced them to long prison terms, including Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, Le Huu Minh Tuan, Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Tu, Pham Chi Thanh, Pham Doan Trang, Trinh Ba Phuong, Nguyen Thi Tam, Do Nam Trung, and Le Trong Hung. All were charged with propaganda against the state under article 117 (or article 88) of the penal code, or with abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state under article 331 of the penal code. On March 23, a court convicted and sentenced Le Van Dung (Le Dung Vova) to five years in prison, also for conducting propaganda against the state. Police are currently holding at least 25 other people in pretrial detention on politically motivated charges, including the prominent rights defender Nguyen Thuy Hanh and the rights campaigner Dinh Van Hai.
The EU should also urge Vietnamese authorities to end their restrictions on freedom of movement and to stop repressing people’s rights to freedom of religion and belief, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch in February published “Locked Inside Our Home: Movement Restrictions on Rights Activists in Vietnam,” a report detailing the Vietnamese government’s systemic and severe restriction of freedom of movement between 2004 and 2021. In early March 2022, security agents prevented eight democracy supporters from attending an event in Hanoi to show solidarity and support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion. “The EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue shouldn’t be just another box-ticking exercise,” Francavilla said. “The Vietnamese government has undertaken binding obligations to respect human rights, and the EU should be adamant that Vietnam’s increased repression will carry consequences for Vietnam’s leadership.”.
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