EU urged to press Vietnam for rights changes

HRW calls on trade bloc to connect its economic leverage to principles of human rights
EU urged to press Vietnam for rights changes

Vietnamese Christians take part in an evening Mass inside a Catholic church in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo: AFP)

An international rights organization has called on the European Union to force Vietnam to stop religious persecution and human rights violations in order to get trade benefits ahead of direct talks on rights issues.

Representatives from the EU and Vietnam will discuss human rights issues on Feb. 19 in Hanoi. The annual meeting comes only a week after the European Parliament approved an EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement and Investment Protection Agreement.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said human rights should be an integral part of bilateral relations between the EU and Vietnam.

“To ensure freedom of religion and belief, Vietnam should allow all religious organizations independence and the right to govern themselves and freely conduct religious activities,” the group said in a statement on Feb. 17.

It asked Vietnam to “immediately end harassment and ill-treatment of followers of religions the government doesn’t favor,” and “stop arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning them and forcing them to denounce their faith.”

“The EU should press Vietnam to end its systemic repression of human rights and release political prisoners and detainees,” HRW said.

It asked the EU to urge its partner to amend five articles — 109, 116, 117, 118, and 331 — in its Penal Code used to imprison people for peaceful protest, association, dissent and religious activities.

The rights group accused the communist government of frequently using those articles to punish people who express views or join independent groups seen as a threat to its monopoly on power.

In its submission in preparation for the talks sent to the EU last month, HRW urged the EU to focus on priority areas regarding the dire human rights situation in Vietnam — political prisoners and detainees, police brutality and repression of freedom of information, speech, association, assembly, movement and religious practice.

It said in one notable incident in November linked to the EU-Vietnam agreement, the authorities detained and charged Pham Chi Dung, a well-known independent journalist, with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” most likely in connection to an overture he made to the European Parliament about Vietnam’s abysmal rights record. He remains in detention without access to a lawyer.

John Sifton, HRW’s Asia advocacy director, said the EU had lost a great opportunity when it signed trade deals with Vietnam without securing enforceable commitments to human rights reforms.

Sifton asked EU officials to warn the Southeast Asian country in the coming dialogue that “failure to meet those commitments could result in suspension of the agreements’ benefits.”

He said numerous rounds of EU-Vietnam human rights meetings had failed to persuade Vietnam to reverse its abusive trend, even as separate negotiations for economic agreements have ended with lucrative deals.

“The EU needs to connect its economic leverage to the human rights principles it claims to champion,” Sifton said.

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