Vietnam’s National Assembly has ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which was hailed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bangkok as “an important step towards ensuring the prevention and prohibition of torture.”
But no matter how many international treaties the regime has signed, human rights conditions in the country remain unchanged and in fact, the ratification is only being used as propaganda. Vietnam seems to have signed almost all the conventions on human rights that the world has ever promulgated. In fact, enthusiastic ratifications of UN conventions are not something new. As long ago as 1982, Vietnam became a state party to the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
That didn’t stop the government from trampling on human rights. According to the International Federation for Human Rights, Vietnam has the highest number of political prisoners – 212 – in Southeast Asia. The most recent US State Department Report on Human Rights was scathing, pointing out that “Specific human rights abuses included continued police mistreatment of suspects during arrest and detention including the use of lethal force as well as austere prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention for political activities; and denial of the right to a fair and expeditious trial. Political influence, endemic corruption, and inefficiency continued to distort the judicial system significantly.
“The government limited freedoms of speech and press and suppressed dissent; increasingly restricted internet freedom; reportedly continued to be involved in attacks against websites containing criticism; maintained surveillance of dissidents; and continued to limit privacy rights and freedoms of assembly, association, and movement.”
From 1982 until now, there are no official numbers of people seeking to flee the country but being arrested, beaten, imprisoned and even killed. There are no accurate official numbers of victims who have been persecuted for expressing their discontent. We are even more in the dark about the incidents of policemen torturing and killing civilians. We just know that an extremely stifling atmosphere for the majority of Vietnamese people still persists even after the Convention on Civil and Political Rights came into force.
It is not miserable economic conditions that pushed hundreds of thousands of people across the sea but the blatant, repressive trampling on human rights of ruling communists intoxicated with their victory in the spring of 1975.
Not surprisingly, Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam as an enemy of the Internet. Recently, Freedom House, a US-based human rights organization, published “Freedom in the world 2015” in which Vietnam is still ranked as a country not having freedom, making it questionable what signing the human rights conventions does.
Although authorities continue to violate the conventions they signed, the UN and its human rights institutions take no appropriate measures to deal with this, allowing Vietnam to continue to sign and violate them. No one benefits except the dictatorship.
The evidence is that, since late 2013, when Vietnam became a member of the UN Human Rights Council, thus far those who voiced opposition have been arrested and convicted, access to Facebook is hindered, the websites of free media channels are firewalled, email addresses have been hacked and prominent bloggers have been arrested one after the other.
Obviously, the High Commissioner plays a very modest role in protecting human rights in the world and particularly in Vietnam. On Oct. 23, 2014 when Truong Tan Sang submitted the Convention against Torture to the National Assembly for ratification, the Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang stressed that: “We do not apply directly the regulations of the Convention against Torture in Vietnam.”
The Congress does nothing but support the government, following a long tradition. Thus, behind the back of the UN, Vietnamese authorities have found find a way to disable the Convention. Full implementation requires the presence and combined operations of many institutions: police, prosecutors, courts, a free media and civil society. Under the current one-party system, these institutions are managed by the Communist Party. police have impunity.
As for dissidents, the police have been ordered to follow up, arrest, beat and traumatize them. The prosecutors and the court are wallflowers. Without rule of law, mechanisms to prevent and punish torturers do not exist, making it questionable on what basis the Convention Against Torture operates in Vietnam.
This country has all the institutions that a democratic society can have, especially civil society. But all are a sham, making it hard for people to see the need to build real ones. The authorities employ these sham institutions to divert international attention and deprive civilians of international assistance.
When engaging on the global playing field, signatories must have transparent, public and verifiable measures to help create new institutions and improve old ones in order to support the implementation of the Convention. The signatories need to amend national laws to conform to the principles and norms of international ones.
The decision of the authorities to “not directly apply some regulations of the Convention against Torture in Vietnam” is designed to assist the government in finding other avenues to continue using torture as a tool to suppress opposition and prevent movements for democratic freedom.
In Vietnam, the Constitution is not as vital as statutes, statutes are not as vital as under-law decrees.
“In Vietnam there is a forest of laws, but people only use the law of the jungle,” a human rights lawyer said. Thus, what sense does the Convention Against Torture make here? Could the UN pour money, manpower and time to create such an international legal instrument to serve only as a decoration for dictatorial regimes?
Vietnam is home to more than 90 million people. We human rights activists will continue to engage in the struggle for human rights, dignity and freedom for our people whether we have the real legal protection from human rights conventions or not, whether we get the concerns of the United Nations and its human rights institutions or not.
Yet, why should the United Nations play only a faint role in the history of humanity? Is it nothing more than a post-World War II institution to preserve the status quo?
Huynh Thuc Vy is a prominent dissident blogger and human rights defender who long has raised concerns about human rights abuses. At present she is the coordinator of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights.