Vietnamese NGOs shy from UN engagement fearing government reprisal

Fewer groups are taking part in preparations for Vietnam’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review.


RFA | 2023.09.22

Vietnamese humanitarian and non-governmental organizations are increasingly less inclined to work with the United Nations due to fear of reprisal from their government, according to a new report by the global body’s human rights agency.

NGO activities are restricted in Vietnam, where criticism of the one-party state is not tolerated. Groups must register with the government and are strictly monitored by authorities.

In its 2022 U.N. in Vietnam Annual Results Report submitted to the 54th U.N. General Assembly that’s going on in New York currently, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said that while the space in which NGOs operate has always been constrained, it had narrowed significantly in the last year due to greater government control over groups’ activities.

Recent arrests of environmental activists and NGO leaders “have made many civil society groups and non-profit organizations cautious, and even paralyzed some organizations’ operations,” a human rights activist from Hanoi who belongs to an unregistered NGO told RFA Vietnamese.

“Sensing the insecurity, our group stopped all activities a long time ago, including activities related to the United Nations organizations,” said the activist who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

Arbitrary application of restrictive legislation – including vague provisions in Vietnam’s Criminal Code related to so-called “propaganda against the state” and the NGO regulatory framework – negatively impacted the ability and willingness of NGOs to engage with the U.N., the report said.

Fear of retribution

Accordingly, several NGOs and long-standing U.N. partners refrained from engaging with human rights mechanisms – including treaty body reviews and preparations leading up to the fourth cycle of the Universal Periodic Review of Vietnam, scheduled to take place in April-May 2024 – due to fear of retribution, it said.

“The NGOs most affected are those working on human rights, gender equality and discrimination, the rule of law and governance,” the OHCHR said. “Government partners and civil society organizations expressed reluctance to engage with international human rights mechanisms, including treaty bodies.”

The report said that NGOs were hesitant to engage with the U.N. as implementing parties or to receive funds from the U.N. for fear of being investigated and found in violation of what it described as a complex and vague tax code.

The OHCHR did not disclose the names or other information about the NGOs mentioned in its report due to security concerns.

Arrests and detentions

In recent years, in addition to detaining dozens of political dissidents and social activists on charges of “anti-state propaganda” and “abusing democratic freedoms,” the Vietnamese government has also arrested six environmental activists and leaders of registered NGOs on charges of “tax evasion.”

They include Nguy Thi Khanh, winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize; lawyer Dang Dinh Bach, journalist Mai Phan Loi, journalist Bach Hung Duong, environmental campaigner Hoang Thi Minh Hong and sustainable energy expert Ngo Thi To Nhien.

According to the activist, more than 50 groups submitted reports to the U.N. to contribute to Vietnam’s 3rd Universal Periodic Review in 2019, but only around 30 will be participating for this review – most of which are socio-political organizations and associations strictly controlled by the government.

The UN Human Rights office’s report noted that authorities had taken revenge on individuals who contacted and submitted their reports on human rights violations to the U.N. or other international organizations.

Victims included rights activist Pham Doan Trang, Y Khiu Nie and YSi Eban from the Evangelical Church of Christ of the Central Highlands – a religious group unrecognized by the Vietnamese government – and Bui Thi Kim Phuong, human rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen’s wife.

Contributing without being repressed

Attempts by RFA to contact the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment went unanswered Thursday.

However, in an article published on Sept. 15, the official People’s Newspaper said that some NGOs in Vietnam “carried out activities without goodwill that did not align with Vietnam’s interests or even showed signs of violating the law and sabotaging national unity.”

“In recent times there has been a prominent phenomenon in which – in the name of international cooperation in lawmaking, judicial reform, education, healthcare, particularly in protecting the rights of ethnic minority people, laborers, land and the environment – some NGOs attempted to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs,” wrote Quang Minh, the report’s author.

“[The NGOs] provid[ed] biased information and assessments in order to cause public confusion, sow doubt, harm national unity, create regional division, and undermine people’s trust in the party and the state,” he said.

In December, the Vietnam Interfaith Council – an unrecognized group fighting for religious freedom in the country – and four organizations representing overseas Vietnamese issued a joint letter calling on Hanoi to better justify Vietnam’s admission to the United Nations Human Rights Council for its 2023-2025 term.

The groups called for an immediate end to all repressive measures against individuals and organizations that exercise and protect fundamental freedoms.

They also called on Hanoi to “accept the essential role of independent civil society organizations in areas such as religion, environment – ​​climate change, union activism, and media; [and] create conditions for civil society organizations to contribute to the development process of the country without being hindered or repressed.”

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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