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Vietnam’s rights council reelection bid alarms activists

International human rights groups say Vietnam must improve its record on basic freedoms before running for reelection as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the 2026-2028 term.

Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son announced Vietnam’s intention to run again at a Monday meeting of the council in Geneva, calling on other countries to support Hanoi’s bid, Vietnamese state media reported. Son was leading Vietnam’s delegation as a member of the council for the 2023-2025 term.

Josef Benedict, civil space research officer for global civil society alliance CIVICUS, told Radio Free Asia Tuesday he was surprised that Vietnam was seeking reelection.

“Its human rights record is appalling and the state of civil space in the country is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor,” he said.

“Furthermore, it has failed to implement many of the recommendations made by the Human Rights Council at its last review in 2019.”

In a report published in Dec. 2023, CIVICUS ranked Vietnam as one of eight countries and territories in Asia with closed civil spaces, meaning the state does not respect the basic freedoms of speech, assembly and association.

The South Africa-based organization pointed out that Hanoi uses harsh laws to criminalize the work of activists and journalists, monitor and ban activists from leaving the country and mistreat political prisoners.

“If the government is really serious about seeking reelection, it should start by taking concrete steps to repeal restrictive laws, release human rights activists in detention and halt the harassment and reprisals against them,” Benedict said. 

“If not, Vietnam should just stay away and allow countries which are serious about their human rights commitments to join the council.”

Vietnam has never been interested in protecting or promoting human rights at the UN, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

“Vietnam has been an unmitigated disaster as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, simultaneously overseeing a massive crackdown on civil society groups and activists in Vietnam while actively condoning the rights violations being committed by other states whose situations have come before the Council,” he said, adding that Hanoi’s bid for reelection should be “absolutely rejected.”

An activist in Hanoi, who wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons, said the UN human rights mechanism seems like a farce.

“What is the point of allowing a country that constantly violates human rights and does not respect the natural environment to sit on the UN Human Rights Council? It’s like sending a drug addict to fight drug dealing!”

The activist called on the international community to be more responsible in selecting countries for the UN’s highest human rights body.

In Oct. 2022 many rights groups unsuccessfully called on UN General Assembly members to reject Vietnam’s bid to join the Human Rights Council for the 2023-2025 term. 

Since then, Vietnam has continued repressing dissidents and social activists.

In 2023, Vietnam arrested at least 24 activists compared to 28 the previous year, according to RFA statistics. 

More than 20 people were sentenced to long prison terms, mostly on charges of “propaganda against the state” or “abusing democratic freedoms” simply for exercising basic human rights such as the right to express and share information.

Hanoi also imprisoned a number of leading environmental campaigners on charges of “tax evasion” or “misappropriation of documents.”

They include Dang Dinh Bach, a lawyer and director of the Center for Legal Studies and Policy for Sustainable Development; anti-fossil fuel campaigner Nguy Thi Khanh, the director of the Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID); Hoang Thi Minh Hong, director of the Center for Action and Alliance for Environment and Development (CHANGE); and clean energy expert Ngo Thi To Nhien

Vietnam is currently holding at least 165 political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch statistics.

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.