Vietnam: When intolerance, injustice and barbarism become state law

Opinion by Nguyên Hoàng Bao Viêt

At the opening of the 42nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, on 9 September 2019, UN Secretary General António Guterres published his annual report mentioning acts of intimidation or reprisals committed by Governments and Non-State actors in 38 States around the world. Among the victims are individuals or groups, civil society activists who seek to cooperate, cooperate or have cooperated with the United Nations, its human rights representatives and mechanisms. Reported acts of intimidation or reprisals include: defamation campaigns, surveillance, arbitrary detention, torture, kidnapping or murder, travel bans, among other violations. Some governmental authorities also threaten and harass family members of victims.

The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (SRV) is among those first incriminated regimes in terms of numbers of individual cases mentioned in official documents (Ref. Reports 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2019). The UN Secretary General stressed that, "such acts are contrary to the very principles of the UN” and reiterated that, “States must end these acts. The world has a duty to ensure respect for the right of participation of those who stand up for human rights with courage and who have responded to requests for information and collaboration with the United Nations".

The SRV, a member of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie – OIF), appeared in the UN Human Rights Council's sights, not only because of its acts of intimidation and reprisals, but also because the SRV has become more and more brutal, repressive, and intolerant. At its 3rd Universal Periodic Review in 2019, out of the 291 recommendations made by 122 UN Member States, the SRV rejected 50 (see addendum 1 here). By this refusal, the SRV demonstrates that it is not committed to ensuring the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, of peaceful association and assembly. It will not review its national security provisions or the cyber security law. It will not release all prisoners of opinion and conscience, nor environmental or human rights defenders. It will not prohibit torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Enforced disappearances inside the country and abroad will not be stopped. As a reminder, Vietnamese fugitives have been abducted and secretly taken to Hanoi. One of them, kidnapped in broad daylight in Berlin, Germany, another, Truong Duy Nhat, a known journalist, disappeared in Bangkok, Thailand, after contacting the UNHCR in early 2019. The kidnapped fugitives have been in prison since they were forcibly returned. After these kidnappings, Vietnamese boatpeople refugees, dissidents and former prisoners living in exile in Europe and South-East Asia report no longer feeling safe.

The death penalty remains untouchable in Viet Nam. According to Amnesty International, in 2018, SRV ranked fourth in the world (85 executions) behind China (over 1,000), Iran (253), Saudi Arabia (149) and before Iraq (52). Data on the death penalty are classified as "state secrets" in Viet Nam. The death penalty must be considered as a very serious threat to freedom of expression in Viet Nam and a terrible factor of intimidation. It is the ultimate and barbaric form of censorship.

In the past, international opinion has saved the lives of some people who were sentenced to death. Among the few survivors from the hell in the Vietnamese gulag, we remember Thich Tue Sy, Buddhist monk, scholar, philosopher, translator and renowned poet, professor of the Van Hanh Buddhist University Institute, honorary member of an International PEN Centre. Arrested in 1984, he was sentenced to death in 1988. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Finally, he served more than ten years in prison.

In this one-party State of Viet Nam, free print and audiovisual media are effectively non-existent. Private publishers and independent human rights organizations are illegal. The SRV occupies the unenviable place of 176th out of 180 countries in the 2018 world rankings for freedom of the press compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB/RSF).

The SRV continues to incriminate and imprison independent writers, journalists and bloggers, social and political dissidents, lawyers and advocates for environmental and human rights. Not to mention members of churches or unrecognized religions. In the last 24 months, many dozens of women and men have been sentenced to long prison terms of up to 20 years in unfair trials. It is a travesty of justice. The ‘’people courts’’ never respect the rights of the defence and the independence of the judges denying defendants the opportunity to present witnesses or evidence in their defence. Furthermore, the authorities are known to resort to preventative detentions without limit and prolonged incommunicado incarcerations. The SRV continues to invoke articles in the penal code that are vaguely worded, including Article 109 of the Penal Code PC2015 (Activities to overthrow the people's administration), Article 116 of the PC2015 (Interference with the implementation of the solidarity policies), Article 117 of the PC2015 (Conducting propaganda against the SRV), Article 318 of the PC2015 (Disturbing public order) to indict and convict its victims.

In forced labour concentration camps, prisoners are punished by isolation. Malnourished and deprived of medical care, they face attacks, humiliation and threats by common criminals. Since early June 2019, several prisoners of opinion and conscience, prisoners of environmental and human rights, went on hunger strike to protest humiliating and appalling conditions of detention. Especially in the camps located in central regions where the winter is very harsh and the summer is hot and stuffy, such as camp No. 5 in Thanh Hoa province and camp No. 6 in Nghê An province.

How can we not to be shocked and indignant by the brutality of the following reported assault: in the afternoon of 12 July 2019, in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council concluded its 41st session, while in Nghê An, Viet Nam, a group of wives and relatives of prisoners from camp No. 6 were violently attacked and seriously injured by thugs and plainclothes agents. In fact, the victims were beaten when they went to Camp No. 6 to peacefully express their emotional support to their beloved prisoners on hunger strike.

The Committee to Defend Persecuted Writers of the PEN Suisse Romand Centre is deeply concerned about the continued imprisonment of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and Ms. Tran Thi Nga - among many others (non-exhaustive list of prisoners established by the Vietnamese League for Human Rights):

  • Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, poet, blogger and online writer. Co-author of the banned book The Way of Viet Nam, he has also published poems and posted articles on his various blogs. Arrested in May 2009, he was sentenced in January 2010 to 16 years in prison and 5 years of probationary detention for "violating articles 117 and 109 of the Penal Code". In May 2016, he was deported to a camp located about 1400 km from the city where his family lives. His state of health would be affected by his conditions of detention. In addition to the hunger strikes against his unjust and illegal punishment. He has repeatedly refused to go abroad for exile, the condition for his early release. He still pleads not guilty.
  • Tran Thi Nga, pen-name Thuy Nga, blogger, environmental and human rights defender, member of the Association of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights which supports and assists prisoners of opinion and conscience. She is well known for defending the victims of illegal expropriation of land. She protested against the alleged perpetrators and accomplices of a vast unprecedented marine pollution in April 2016. Arrested on 21 January 2017, she was sentenced in July 2017 to 9 years in prison and 5 years of probationary detention for "violating article 117 of the Penal Code". In February 2018, she was deported to a camp located  more than 1,000 km from the city where her two children live. She would have health problems.

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc and Tran Thi Nga are two "representative cases" well known for many years. For their non-violent resistance against an unhappy and unjust fate, their heavy prison sentences, their sufferings (and those of their relatives), their admirable courage in defending the freedom of expression and the dignity of the human being, for attempting to protect social justice against "the endemic corruption plague", "the abuse of power", "the cult of impunity", to relieve the environment in distress, to rescue children, women and men, all hungry and thirsty, without roof and without voice. To build bridges of tolerance and peace... To safeguard their mother tongue - the Vietnamese language - and their once flourishing culture, currently being in the track of alienation.

Furthermore, the SRV government treats prisoners as hostages. It condemns environmental and human rights defenders to very heavy prison sentences (5, 10, 15, 20 years in 2018 and 2019). It discreetly negotiates with some democratic States to exchange these hostages for economic or military aid. It puts pressure on the prisoners to accept forced exile abroad without hope of return, while their prison sentence will only be suspended and not annulled.

How can the Committee to Defend Persecuted Writers resign and be silent in the face of such a situation in Viet Nam or any other country in the world? When intolerance, injustice and barbarism become state law... Let’s hope that such sad and revolting realities in those States known for their very bad behavior, will one day appear in the viewfinder of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

Nguyên Hoàng Bao Viêt
President of the PEN Suisse Romand Centre (PEN International)
Delegate of the Committee to Defend Persecuted Writers (PEN Suisse Romand Centre)


List of States formulating Recommendations that were rejected by the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam RSV during the Universal Periodic Review of the 3rd cycle of 2019.

References: Document VIET NAM A / HRC / 41/7 and A / HRC / 41/7 / Add.1 Human Rights Council 41st session 24 June - 12 July 2019

1) Freedom of expression and opinion, National security, Cyber security, Censorship:

- Latvia, Mexico, Uruguay, France, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Argentina, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, Austria, Canada, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Italy, Switzerland, United States of America, Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic.

2) Release of prisoners of opinion and conscience, human rights and the environment:

- United States of America, Iceland, Poland, Czech Republic.

3) Torture, Ill-treatment, Conditions of Detention, Enforced Disappearances, (Abductions):

- Denmark, Ukraine, Hungary, Czech Republic, France, Iraq, Slovakia, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Belgium.

4) Death penalty:

- El Salvador, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Finland, Georgia, Iceland, Portugal, Spain, Albania, Australia, Austria, Argentina, France, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Uruguay, Germany, Mexico, Norway, Romania, Italy, Switzerland, Ukraine, Australia, Sweden.