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EU human rights talks with Vietnam draw censure – DW – 07/11/2024

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The European Union has come under criticism for continuing to engage in human rights dialogues with authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia. 

Several campaign groups are calling on Brussels to stop the “box-ticking” talks with Vietnam‘s Communist government, the latest round of which took place last week.

Officials from the European Commission and European Parliament told DW that, though they are concerned about the deterioration of human rights in Vietnam, they believe the formal dialogues remain an important avenue for improving the situation.

The European Union and Vietnam have engaged in human rights discussions since the 1990s and have held at least 20 formal human rights dialogue sessions since 2002. This was noted by Human Rights Watch, a prominent advocacy group, in a letter submitted to the European Union ahead of the latest human rights dialogue that began in Brussels on July 4.

During this period, “Vietnam has made almost no progress on the numerous issues raised by EU officials,” the letter stated, and repression in Vietnam “has only intensified” since the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) came into force in 2020.

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According to data collected by the 88Project, a human rights group, there are 192 activists currently in prison in Vietnam and another 400 at risk of imprisonment.

The US State Department’s latest human rights report on Vietnam noted that, in addition to restrictions on speech and association, there are credible reports of “arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government,” as well as “torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and punishment by government agents.”

Stop the talks?

Given the deterioration of human rights in recent years, Human Rights Watch this month called on the EU to “not repeat fruitless human rights dialogues that merely cultivate the illusion of addressing Vietnam’s human rights crackdown.”

“Unless the human rights dialogue is used to lay out those consequences and benchmarks to avoid them, it will remain just another box-ticking exercise,” Claudio Francavilla, the associate EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Other human rights groups agree.

Ben Swanton, co-director of the 88Project, told DW that he questions the purpose of holding “a human rights dialogue with a government whose official policy is to violate human rights: It’s a square peg in a round hole.”

Instead, Swanton said, Brussels should demand the “immediate repeal” of Directive 24 — a leaked document from the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Politburo that demands even more repression of civil society groups — and should be “sanctioning Hanoi for the multiple ways … not whitewashing rights abuses through a performative dialogue.”

Human Rights Watch has called on Brussels to threaten to suspend the EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) and the EVFTA, given that Article 1 of the PCA states that “respect for democratic principles and human rights” is an “essential element” of the agreement.

The group also calls on the European Union to adopt “targeted sanctions against Vietnamese officials and entities responsible for the systematic repression in the country.”

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Trade over values

Sources who spoke to DW did not contest the European Union’s global commitment to human rights, nor did they believe that Brussels was cynically using these human rights dialogues to gain leverage in those authoritarian countries.

They argued that Brussels is concerned about jeopardizing the promises that Hanoi made to improve workers’ rights and grant more freedom to environmental activists as part of the EVFTA.

One condition of the pact was that Hanoi allow independent trade unions to operate. The government has also vowed to ratify the UN International Labor Organization’s Convention 87, which mandates the free establishment of labor organizations, by early this year, although that has not yet happened.

As DW reported earlier this year, Vietnam’s Labor Code, which became law in January 2021, allows for “independent workers’ organizations,” but these are far more restricted in their activities than trade unions.

Moreover, according to the leaked Directive 24, the Vietnamese government is committed to eradicating “hostile and reactionary forces” that seek to “sabotage” the country by “forming ‘civil society’ alliances and networks, ‘independent trade unions,’ creating the premise for the formation of domestic political opposition groups.”

As part of the EVFTA, Hanoi was expected to support the formation of the Domestic Advisory Group (DAG), in which Vietnamese business representatives and civil society groups could openly discuss the implementation of the trade agreement, mainly its trade and sustainable development sections.

Vietnamese authorities have prevented numerous activists from joining the Domestic Advisory Group, and several senior members of the VNGO-EVFTA Network, a group of seven Vietnamese civil society organizations that lobby the DAG on development and environmental issues, have been jailed.

Isabel Santos, a member of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, told DW that she is against ratifying the EVFTA because of Vietnam’s “systemic violation of human rights” and “the lack of concrete signs of a reversal.”

Most of her colleagues didn’t agree, however. “There was a majority in the European Parliament that allowed the agreement to go ahead, with many claiming that it would lead the country to a new commitment on human rights,” she added.

Santos said he “steady deterioration” in human rights since the EVFTA was ratified in 2020 confirmed her interpretation.

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Talks to continue

Every EU official whom DW spoke with agreed that Vietnam’s human rights record hasn’t improved.

“We share the concerns raised by civil society about the human rights situation in Vietnam,” a European Commission spokesperson told DW.

Despite the concerns, the spokesperson said, “we believe that the EU must continue to engage with the country’s authorities and on the ground.”

Udo Bullmann, the chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, had a similar critique of the situation in Vietnam.

“We do see an improvement in economic ties with Vietnam, but unfortunately, the contrary is true for the human rights conditions. Government critics are being imprisoned, workers’ rights are being ignored, and independent labor unions are not even on the plate,” he told DW.

“The free trade agreement with Vietnam was ratified with the expectation that the human rights situation would improve. We are disappointed that this has not been the case,” he added.

He said “human rights dialogues remain a key vehicle” in the EU’s foreign policy, but added that “we have to make sure that they achieve concrete results, and we should not be satisfied with talks only.”

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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