Should Vietnam become a member of the UN Human Rights Council?

By Umair Jamal


March 17, 2021


Vietnam has announced its candidacy to join the UN Human Rights Council, basing its case mostly on the country’s successful containment of COVID-19. However, when it comes to Vietnam’s own human rights record, the government has done everything to curtail people’s fundamental civil and political rights.

Vietnam has announced its bid to join the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the body’s 2023-2025 term.

The country’s foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, justified the application by saying that people’s freedom can only be safeguarded if a country defends itself against pandemics like that of COVID-19.

Critics are skeptical of the bid, saying that the one-party communist state is hardly a torch bearer when it comes to protecting and promoting people’s fundamental rights.

The UNHRC, responsible for promoting and defending human rights globally, has 47 members who are elected for three-year terms, according to quotas by region. The UNHRC elected 15 members in its last election in October 2020. The next round of elections will take place later this year. 

Despite Vietnam’s announcement, evidence suggests the government has done little to improve its poor human rights record over the years and remains one of the most oppressive states in Southeast Asia.

Electing the country to the UNHRC would virtually give Vietnam’s government a permit to continue its oppressive policies.

Vietnam is basing its UNHRC bid on its successful response to COVID-19

For Vietnam’s government, successful containment of the COVID-19 pandemic is apparently enough to deserve a UNHRC seat. Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh indicated that Vietnam’s supplying of masks and medical equipment to over 50 countries make it an effective candidate for the UNHRC.

Speaking at the UNHRC’s 46th Regular Session in Geneva in February, Binh said that keeping people safe amid a pandemic is essential to safeguarding rights and freedoms. “[This] is the best way to ensure that each and every member of the society can fully enjoy their human rights,” Pham said, as quoted by Vietnamese media.

“We continue to put emphasis on the protection and promotion of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of our people, even in this most difficult of times,” he added.

Vietnamese Foreign Office spokesperson Le Thi Thy Hang echoed Binh’s points in a statement on March 11, but she didn’t exactly explain how Vietnam has promoted human rights. She offered no indication of whether Vietnam has followed any of the action plans proposed by international observers to improve its poor human rights record.

The fact that the government’s justification for its UNHRC candidature has not gone beyond COVID-19 shows that the country doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to real efforts to defend people’s rights and freedoms.

Critics are skeptical of the government’s view

Critics say that Vietnam’s one-party state strictly limits people’s fundamental political and civil rights and should not be offered any position at the UNHRC.

Nguyen Van Dai, a Vietnamese lawyer and democracy advocate, says that it’s surprising that the country has applied for UNHRC membership. According to Van Dai, Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s one of the most oppressive states.

“Surely, Vietnam can’t run for [membership on] the Human Rights Council,” Nguyen toldRadio Free Asia’s Vietnamese Service.

“For the last four years, Vietnam has become Southeast Asia’s most oppressive country, even replacing Burma as the country holding the most political prisoners.”

“In addition, Vietnam’s trade partners like the European Union, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United States and Australia have frequently called on it to release the activists now being held in Vietnam’s prisons, and to improve its record on human rights,” he added.

What does Vietnam’s past human rights record say about the country’s candidature?

Vietnam’s human rights record remains dismal in many areas, including freedom of expression, freedom of speech and the rights to freely practice beliefs and religion. The ruling communist party maintains a monopoly on power and has crushed all political challenges to its leadership. The country’s courts and criminal justice system lack independence and only serve the ruling party’s interests.

The press in the country is subject to government attacks for little more than publishing facts. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders placed Vietnam at 175 out of 180. In the run up to Vietnam’s Communist Party Congress in January, the ruling party used strict laws and other means to arrest and intimidate independent journalists and to silence critics. Dozens of bloggers and journalists are imprisoned in Vietnam for merely publishing material critical of the ruling party’s domestic and foreign policies.

US State Department report examining the rights records of countries around the world said that in 2019, Vietnam was responsible for considerable violations of human rights, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearance; torture by government agents; [and] arbitrary arrests and detentions.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam’s government presented an inaccurate report of its human rights record at the the UNHRC in Geneva in 2019. Vietnam claimed that it had implemented 175 out of 182 recommendations from the 2014 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to improve its human rights record, but Human Rights Watch said this bears no semblance to reality.

“Vietnam’s leaders could have used the UN session to commit to real rights reforms, but instead they plunged deeper into denial about the country’s abysmal human rights record,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.

“Vietnam should recognize that when the only country that praises your ‘human rights progress’ is China, you are clearly doing many things wrong,” he added.

The UNHRC should push Vietnam to implement existing action plans to improve human rights conditions in the country, rather than offering it a place in the forum. If Vietnam becomes a member of the UNHRC, it will not only discredit the UN body’s standing but will also legitimize Vietnam’s policies of oppression.



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