Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of Parliament, and ladies and gentlemen.
First, I would like to thank the Subcommittee on International Human Rights for holding this meeting and for giving me the opportunity to speak about the human rights situation in Vietnam.
At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Canada graciously received many Vietnamese refugees and provided them with a new home. For this kindness and generosity, we would like to express our deepest gratitude to all of you.
April 30 will mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. We must examine how 40 years of Communist rule has affected the people of Vietnam. As of 1975, the Communist Party of Vietnam established one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in our history. Immediately after taking control of South Vietnam, the Communist Party sent hundreds of thousands of people into prison camps, where thousands died from torture, starvation, disease, and exhaustion from extreme labour.
From 1975 and well into the 1990s, their reign of terror drove many people into a mass exodus from Vietnam. Of those who tried to escape by boat, many perished at sea or fell victim to pirates, including hundreds of women and young girls who were raped or kidnapped. But perhaps the most glaring aspect of their 40-year rule is their abysmal human rights record.
For today's meeting I would like to offer my presentation on five key areas.
The first is freedom of expression and information. In Vietnam the state controls all print and broadcast media. Foreign news and television shows are censored before they reach the Vietnamese audience. The government silences critics through police intimidation, harassment, arrest, court convictions, and severe prison sentences. According to the Reporters Without Borders 2015 press freedom index, Vietnam ranked 175th out of 180 countries.
In September 2013 the government passed Decree 72, giving the state sweeping powers to restrict speech on Internet blogs and social media. In January 2014 they passed Decree 174, putting in place harsh penalties for social media and Internet users who voice anti-state “propaganda” or “reactionary ideologies”. The government also uses DDoS attacks to shut down opposition websites and spyware and malware to hack into activists' computers. According to Freedom House, they also employ thousands of “public opinion shapers” who spread favourable state propaganda on the Internet.
The top two recommendations for Vietnam from the UN universal periodic review in February of last year were, one, to create conditions favourable to the realization of freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and two, to ensure that freedom of expression was protected, both offline and online, to enable unrestricted access and use of the Internet and to allow bloggers, journalists, and other Internet users and NGOs to promote and protect human rights.
The second area is freedom of assembly and association. The Government of Vietnam bans all political parties, labour unions, and human rights organizations independent of the government or the Communist Party. The authorities require official approval for public gatherings and refuse to grant permission for meetings, marches, or protests they deem unacceptable.
In recent years, numerous protests have broken out over land confiscation by corrupt officials, over poor labour conditions and inadequate labour policy, and over territorial disputes with China. In response, state security forces regularly crack down on people participating in these protests, and many activists were either detained or sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
The third area is freedom of religion or belief. Although religious freedom is protected under the Vietnamese constitution, there are, however, many related decrees placing significant limitations on religious freedom. Most recently, Decree 92 was passed in January 2013, further extending the government's control on religious groups.
All religious groups in Vietnam are required to join a party-controlled organization called Vietnam Fatherland Front. Those who fail to do so are often arrested or harassed. Religious groups most often targeted by the government include the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant house churches, the Catholic Redemptorists, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
Vietnam’s current situation can be best captured in the report of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief after his visit to Vietnam in July of last year. Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt wrote in his summary:
Whereas religious life and religious diversity are a reality in Viet Nam today, autonomy and activities of independent religious or belief communities, that is, unrecognized communities, remain restricted and unsafe, with the rights to freedom of religion or belief of such communities grossly violated in the face of constant surveillance, intimidation, harassment and persecution.
Area number four concerns political rights. Vietnam is a one-party state in which the Communist Party of Vietnam has a firm monopoly over political power. This monopoly is guaranteed in article 4 of the recently amended 2013 constitution, which states that the Communist Party of Vietnam is the sole force leading the state and society. As mentioned above, all opposition parties are banned and severely persecuted.
Members of Vietnam’s National Assembly, which is the legislature, are elected in general elections; however, all candidates are vetted by the Communist Party-controlled Vietnam Fatherland Front. This earned Vietnam a Freedom House political rights score of seven in 2015, with one being the best and seven being the worst. As a result, the party controls all branches of the government. According to Freedom House, “Party membership is widely viewed as a means to business and societal connections, and corruption and nepotism among party members are a continuing problem.”
In Transparency International’s 2014 corruption perceptions index, Vietnam ranked 119 out of 175.
Despite many challenges, human rights defenders, democracy activists, intellectuals, and increasingly even some former high-ranking Communist officials, have openly called for political reform and better respect for human rights. Still, the government has responded with more arrests, harassment, and intimidation, a repression that many international organizations have labelled as the worst over the last 20 years.
The fifth and last area is the rule of law. Instead of the rule of law, the Vietnamese government has relied on the “rule by law” approach, applying sweeping national security provisions to suppress basic rights. To curtail freedom of speech, activists are charged with vaguely worded articles in the penal code, such as article 88, conducting propaganda against the state; article 79, subversion of the people's administration; and article 258, misuse of democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.
In addition, Vietnam’s judiciary is under the control of the Communist Party, and in politically motivated cases, trials are often conducted hastily and routinely lack the impartiality required by international law.
Vietnamese law also authorizes administrative detention without trial, deeming peaceful dissidence as a threat to national security and placing many under house arrest. To avoid international criticism, authorities have sometimes applied non-political charges, such as tax evasion, to jail high-profile activists.
As an example, in the 2014 “Human Rights and Democracy” report, the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office classified Vietnam as a country of concern, with the following observation:
There is a lack of transparency and accountability throughout the legal system. We are concerned that the state uses the courts to punish dissidents by prosecuting them on unrelated matters. For example, in the case of Le Quoc Quan, whose sentence to 30 months in prison for tax evasion was upheld in February , the UK assessed that he was imprisoned for voicing his opinions on religion, corruption and land reform, and that his trial was unfair.
In conclusion, to protect human rights and ultimately to support democracy in Vietnam, I would like to make the following four recommendations. The first is to call for the release of political prisoners. I urge that the Government of Canada join the UN 2014 universal periodic review in calling on the Vietnamese government to immediately release all political prisoners held and those held for peaceful expression or religious beliefs. It is estimated that there are currently hundreds of political prisoners in Vietnam.
The second recommendation is for outreach to civil society. The Canadian embassy in Vietnam should meet with and support independent grassroots organizations, especially those advocating for social reform, legal reform, and human rights. In addition, engaging with human rights defenders and the relatives of those in prison would be very helpful.
The third recommendation is to focus on legal reform. The Government of Canada can insist that the Government of Vietnam abolish articles 79, 88, and 258 of the penal code and administrative decrees 72, 92, and 174. Canadian embassy officials should request to attend political trials and insist that the Government of Vietnam respect the rights to assemble, to exercise free speech, and to form civic organizations.
The fourth and last recommendation is to integrate human rights into the overall bilateral relationship. The Government of Canada can incorporate legal reform and Internet freedom into the agenda for promoting higher education and trade with Vietnam, develop a road map linking human rights improvements with closer economic and security ties, and continue to raise human rights during all parliamentary and executive branch visits to Vietnam.
Ladies and gentlemen, for many years the international community, especially the Canadian government and people, have been supporting human rights in Vietnam, and we thank you for all you have done. We believe that a free and democratic Vietnam, where human rights are respected, is in the best interest of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
We ask for your support in bringing human rights and freedom to our country, so that Vietnam can become a reliable and strong partner for a safe and prosperous Southeast Asia.
Thank you again for having me here today.
Yes. It is a huge problem in Vietnam. Part of the reason is that a lot of these trafficking rings actually either sponsor or are under the protection of the police, as you may have guessed, this being a very corrupt system. The police and local officials are very much involved in all of this trafficking activity.
As far as I know, the women who have been trafficked throughout Southeast Asia number into the hundreds of thousands. In the Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong area alone we are talking about approximately 70,000 to 85,000 women. I visited South Korea two years ago and met with some of these women who were trafficked and rescued. The estimate by the South Korean government is anywhere between 45,000 and 50,000 women trafficked from Vietnam into South Korea.
It is a huge problem. We've been trying to work with many international NGOs to address the issue. However, it's hard to deal with this problem because it originated in Vietnam, and as I said, at times under the protection of the police and local government officials. It is very hard to put an end to this problem because we don't have the cooperation of the Government of Vietnam, and it's very hard to deal with.
As far as children are concerned, I am not as familiar. However, I am very familiar with children trafficking to neighbouring countries, especially to Cambodia. I don't have a lot of information about children being trafficked elsewhere, but in Cambodia I do have quite a familiarity with the area. It has been estimated there are about 30,000 to 35,000 children from Vietnam currently residing in Cambodia and mostly being exploited as prostitutes.
I have met with a few of them. The youngest was six years old and the oldest was fourteen, mostly girls but a lot of boys too. It is truly heartbreaking to see that first-hand. I have worked with a couple of groups trying to get help to some of these kids, but then again, the problem originated in Vietnam. If we cannot get any cooperation from the Vietnamese government, then it becomes very difficult.