Thursday

30th Mar 2017

Opinion

EU sacrifices human rights for Vietnam free trade

  • Vietnamese workers, most of whom are women, have no mechanisms to defend their rights (Photo: World Bank)

For almost six months, the family and friends of imprisoned Vietnamese lawyer and activist Nguyen Van Dai have been waiting to hear what will happen to him.

Dai was arrested on 16 December 2015, hours before a planned meeting with EU officials in Hanoi. Since his arrest, his wife has not been allowed to send a Bible and newspapers, and his lawyer has been denied a meeting.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

An EEAS [the EU foreign service] statement on 18 December stated that Dai’s arrest “goes against Vietnam's international human rights obligations”, and called on the Vietnamese authorities to release Dai immediately, and to conduct an investigation into the assault perpetrated against Dai a few days earlier. Neither of these requests has been addressed.

Nguyen Van Dai is a well-known human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist who has provided legal advice and representation to victims of human rights abuses - including religious minorities - across Vietnam. He is also one of the original signatories of Bloc 8406, a manifesto on freedom and democracy in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s human rights record is not often in the spotlight. The UN member state acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1982 and in the same decade embarked on a period of economic reform referred to as doi moi.

The past three decades have seen significant economic development as well as some growth in the level of civil society activity and limited improvements in online freedom. Vietnamese activists, however, say Vietnam fails to respect international human rights standards and actively pursues human rights defenders.

A 2014 report authored by members of the group Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience, including Nguyen Van Dai, logged hundreds of violations against activists, bloggers, petitioners and religious figures including travel bans, assaults, arrest, torture and imprisonment.

Between 2006 and 2014, the most common criminal charge brought at dissidents was “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (Article 88 of the Penal Code).

It is under Article 88 that Nguyen Van Dai and colleague Le Thu Ha, who was arrested on the same day, are now detained. Dai has already served a four-year prison sentence after being found guilty under the same article.

The EU has acknowledged many of these issues and has raised concerns during the annual EU-Vietnam human rights dialogues about national security provisions in the Penal Code and the harassment, arrest and detention of human rights defenders and religious followers.

However, these concerns do not seem to have found their way into other aspects of the EU’s relationship with Vietnam.

A glance at trade relations raises serious concerns. The EU is one of Vietnam’s largest trade partners, and the EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) is founded on the “respect of human rights and democratic principles”.

Yet new EU-Vietnam trade agreements are being fast-tracked with barely any attention to human rights.

Commission's 'maladministration'

Last December, the EU concluded three years of negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Vietnam. In principle, FTA negotiations must be preceded by a Human Rights Impact Assessment to ensure that trade does not negatively impact the enjoyment of human rights.

This is very important for Vietnam, especially in major export sectors such as the textile and garment industry where working conditions are extremely poor. There are no independent trade unions in Vietnam and the right to strike is severely restricted, even prohibited in many sectors.

As a result, Vietnamese workers, most of whom are women, have no mechanisms to defend their rights.

Disturbingly, and despite serious evidence on Vietnam’s human rights abuses raised in recent European Parliament resolutions, the European Commission waived this mandatory requirement and announced that a human rights impact assessment was not necessary for Vietnam.

Two human rights NGOs, the Paris-based FIDH and Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, brought the affair before the EU Ombudsman.

After a year of thorough investigation, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly declared that the complaint was well founded. She charged the European Commission with “maladministration”, and demanded that the assessment be conducted without delay.

Instead of implementing her recommendations, the EC accelerated negotiations with Vietnam, and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement was signed in December 2015. It still needs approval by the EU Council and European Parliament.

'Human rights clause'

The inconsistency of EU policies and practices shocked many MEPs. In a heated debate in the EP human rights sub-committee in March at which the EU Ombudsman gave testimony, MEPs expressed amazement that “the EU’s right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing”.

The committee’s chair, Elena Valenciano, described the affair as a “dangerous precedent” and called for a review of this and other current bilateral trade negotiations.

Such inconsistency undermines the EU’s legitimacy and harms solidarity with people on the ground. Nguyen Van Dai placed his trust in the EU, enough to put his safety on the line to meet EU officials in Hanoi.

He is now in jail, and risks a harsh sentence on completely illegitimate charges.

Public statements on his plight are important, but they are not enough. The EU disposes of a whole range of policy tools, including a “human rights clause” in the PCA that allows it to suspend trade if grave human rights violations persist.

It should use these tools to press Vietnam to respect its binding bilateral engagements - and to begin by setting Nguyen Van Dai free.

Analysis

Lukashenka: End of an era?

The political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season began, but greater changes loom after 23 years of dictatorship.

Column / Brexit Briefing

The Union under threat

The effect of Brexit will be much more profound on Northern Ireland than on Scotland. Some kind of border controls with Ireland seem inevitable.

Birthday wishes to the European Union

With the EU soon to celebrate its 60th birthday, there are still lingering questions about the bloc's future and whether there can be a change in fortune.

Analysis

Lukashenka: End of an era?

The political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season began, but greater changes loom after 23 years of dictatorship.

News in Brief

  1. UK delivered its Article 50 letter to the EU
  2. Support for Germany's anti-EU party fading
  3. Turkish intelligence not welcome in Germany
  4. US senate approves Montenegro’s Nato bid
  5. Scottish MPs give go ahead to seek referendum
  6. Uber pulls out of Denmark over new taxi-regulation
  7. EU court validates sanctions on Russia's Rosneft
  8. Luxembourg to team up with Ireland in Apple tax appeal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. The Idealist QuarterlyCan Progressive Stories Survive Our Post-Truth Era? After-Work Discussion on 6 April
  2. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  3. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  4. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  5. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  6. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  7. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  8. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  9. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  10. Malta EU 2017Council Adopts New Rules to Improve Safety of Medical Devices
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy
  12. Party of European SocialistsWe Must Renew Europe for All Europeans

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. MEP Tomáš ZdechovskýThe European Commission Has Failed in Its Fight Against Food Waste
  2. ILGA-EuropeEP Recognises Discrimination Faced by Trans & Intersex People
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers25 Nordic Bioeconomy Cases for Sustainable Change
  4. European Free AllianceSupporting Artur Mas: Democracy and Freedom Cannot Be Convicted
  5. UNICEFSyria Conflict 6 Years On: Children's Suffering at Its Worst
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsDomestic Violence in Tajikistan: Time to Right the Wrongs
  7. European Trust SummitCorporate Strategy and Public Affairs in a Low-Trust World - Conference 31 May
  8. Malta EU 2017Agreement Reached to Involve Consumers in Financial Services Policymaking
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cities Gather Against Violent Extremism & Introduce Nordic Safe Cities
  10. World VisionFears and Dreams of Syria's Children and Their Peers Around the World
  11. Malta EU 2017Maltese Presidency and EP Agree on Visa Liberalisation for Ukraine
  12. Mission of China to the EUEU Window Chinese Government Academic Scholarship 2017/18 - Apply Now