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Rights groups call on UN secretary general to urge Vietnam to free 4 activists

On the eve of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ trip to Vietnam, 14 international and local rights organizations called on him to urge Hanoi to release four environmental activists imprisoned in what they called a “new wave of repression” that threatens progress in addressing climate change and protecting human rights.

Guterres’ visit on Friday and Saturday commemorates the 45th anniversary of Hanoi’s membership in the United Nations. Earlier this month, Vietnam was elected to a three-year term on the U.N. Human Rights Council despite critics pointing to its track record of rights abuses.

In a joint open letter penned Thursday, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the other organizations demanded the release of Nguy Thi Khanh, director of the Green Innovation and Development Centre; Dang Dinh Bach, director of the Research Center for Law and Policy for Sustainable Development, Mai Phan Loi, chairman of the Committee for Science Affairs at the Center for Media in Educating Community; and Bach Hung Duong, MEC’s director. 

The four were sentenced to two to five years in prison in separate trials earlier this year. 

 These political prisoners are emblematic victims of a new wave of repression in Vietnam which, through a combination of threats and judicial harassment, is threatening progress in combating climate change, protecting human rights and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” the letter said.

“We call on you to remind Vietnam that, as a newly elected member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, it has an obligation to uphold the highest human rights standards,” it said.

U.N. agencies in Vietnam must be more transparent and proactive in urging the country to improve its human rights record, said Jessica Nguyen, advocacy officer from the Illinois-based 88 Project, which maintains a database of imprisoned political activists in Vietnam, and was one of the 14 signatories of the joint letter. 

“To do so, the U.N. agencies themselves have to improve their accountability in human rights issues in Vietnam, particularly [making themselves more accountable] to civil society organizations,” she said.

Environmental protection is on the agenda for Guterres’ trip, presenting a seeming contradiction in a country where the four environmental activists are in prison on “bogus ‘tax evasion’ charges,” Phil Robertson, deputy head of Human Rights Watch’s Asia-Pacific Division, told RFA.

“The U.N. leader wants to talk in Hanoi about climate change policies, but how can Vietnam really move forward when it is busy jailing key civil society partners who are critical to national efforts to stop global warming?” Robertson said. This contradiction cannot stand, and the U.N. needs to tell the Vietnamese government that it must end its repression of civil society organizations and NGO leaders.”

 “Every day Vietnam is defying its obligations to uphold human rights, and we’re demanding that the U.N. call them out on it, and press Hanoi to do much better,” he said, adding that the international community seemingly has not noticed that Vietnam’s jails are filled with people who dared to criticize the government. 

Guterres needs to state clearly that “Vietnam’s continued repression of activists and civil society groups will jeopardize the country’s ability to meet the SDGs that are so near and dear to the U.N.’s heart,” he said.

Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.