Appeal to halt free trade deal with EU

Protest groups have been systematically targeted with more than 40 activists jailed in 2018. Photo courtesy AFP.

Vietnamese religious groups and NGOs have joined Human Rights Watch to call for the postponement of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA).

The groups wrote to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and Bernd Lange of the European Parliament to denounce Vietnam’s deteriorating human rights record.

They said no steps should be taken towards ratification of the agreement until the Vietnamese government showed concrete improvements in its record.

The European Council is due to sign off on the deal in the coming weeks, opening the door for a ratification vote in the European Parliament before European elections in May.

The 18 groups included the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Sangha, the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam and the Justice and Peace Office of the Vietnamese Redemptorist Church.

They said that Vietnam had ignored calls from the EU to ease repression and that attacks on rights and freedoms had deteriorated further in recent weeks with the implementation of a new cyber security law.

“Despite being a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Vietnam has one of the most repressive penal codes in the region,” said the letter.

“Loose provisions are routinely used by the regime to jail peaceful government critics, bloggers, religious leaders, labour rights activists, environmentalists and human rights defenders.”

There had been hope that pressure from Europe, and from the US while it was still negotiating the TPP agreement, would push the Vietnamese to make some progress in human rights.

However, the activists and religious freedom advocates said that no positive changes had materialised.

They appealed to the EU to use the leverage of the free trade deal to demand the release of jailed bloggers, amend the vague criminal code used to imprison government critics and repeal new laws that enforce government control the internet and restrict religious activities.

“Rushing through approval of the free trade agreement with Vietnam would be a grave mistake,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

“It would reward Vietnam for doing nothing, and send a terrible message that past European Union pledges to use trade as a tool to promote human rights around the globe have no credibility.”

Some 32 members of the European Parliament signed a public letter last September raising serious concerns about repression in Vietnam.

However, the EU is under pressure from the business lobby to press ahead with the free trade agreement.

HRW said many donors and trade partners had ignored Vietnam’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on dissent and carried on with business as usual.

It said the Vietnamese authorities attempted to break up several dissidents networks last year and convicted 42 people for expressing opinions critical of the government.

“Activists were attacked in their homes, their villages, public areas, and when they sought to travel to visit other dissidents. They were beaten with sticks and helmets, punched and kicked, and hit by rocks thrown at them. Unidentified thugs vandalized their homes. In virtually all cases, the police did not investigate,” said HRW in its annual summary of rights violations.