Thursday

25th May 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.

Why the EU doesn't get China's Belt and Road

It is not enough for European officials to simply tell the press that they do not understand the Belt and Road – the vision is clear enough, the point is to decide how to engage with it.

Development serving the purpose of migration control

While the EU is sacrificing development aid to serve short-term migration interests, it is important to realise that enhanced border controls will not solve the root causes of forced migration and displacement.

News in Brief

  1. Pressure grows on climate impact of EU timber harvesting
  2. US goes after Fiat Chrysler over emissions cheat
  3. Munich police break up Europe-wide burglar clan
  4. Report: VW threatened with €19.7 billion French fine
  5. Turkey begins mass trial of suspected coup leaders
  6. Merkel's CDU consolidates lead in polls
  7. France to host Russian president
  8. Switzerland votes against nuclear power

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFChild Alert on Myanmar: Fruits of Rapid Development yet to Reach Remote Regions
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersBecome an Explorer - 'Traces of Nordic' Seeking Storytellers Around the World
  3. Malta EU 2017Closer Cooperation and Reinforced Solidarity to Ensure Security of Gas Supply
  4. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceHigh-Intensity Interval Training Is Therapeutic Option for Type 2 Diabetes
  5. Dialogue Platform"The West Must Help Turkey Return to a Democratic Path" a Call by Fethullah Gulen
  6. ILGA-EuropeRainbow Europe 2017 Is Live - Which Countries Are Leading on LGBTI Equality?
  7. Centre Maurits CoppietersWhen You Invest in a Refugee Woman You Help the Whole Community
  8. Eurogroup for AnimalsECJ Ruling: Member States Given No Say on Wildlife Protection In Trade
  9. European Heart NetworkCall for Urgent Adoption of EU-Wide Nutrient Profiles for Nutrition & Health Claims
  10. Counter BalanceInvestment Plan for Europe More Climate Friendly but European Parliament Shows Little Ambition
  11. Mission of China to the EUPresident Xi: China's Belt and Road Initiative Benefits People Around the World
  12. Malta EU 2017EU Strengthens Control of the Acquisition and Possession of Firearms

Latest News

  1. Openness over Brexit is 'political play', says EU ombudsman
  2. Le Pen's EU group in fresh spending scandal
  3. New EU right to data portability to cause headaches
  4. Cyber threats are inevitable, paralyzing impact is not
  5. Transparency complaints keep EU Ombudsman busy
  6. EU sets out criteria for relocating UK agencies
  7. EU states back bill against online hate speech
  8. Dutch coalition talks collapse again

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Cost of Speaking Out: Human Rights Violations Committed in Belarus
  2. ACCABanishing Bias? Audit, Objectivity and the Value of Professional Scepticism
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Oslo Climate Declaration Focuses on Rising Temperatures in the Arctic
  4. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceAbdominal Obesity: A Causal Risk Factor for Cardiometabolic Diseases
  5. EU Green Week 2017Discuss EU Environmental Policies With Industry Experts and Thought Leaders
  6. GEN Summit 2017Join the World's Leading Media Summit for Thought-Provoking Talks and Experiences
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsTogether for Human Rights: A Year in Review
  8. Malta EU 2017EU All Set for Free Roaming Starting 15 June
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersRefugee Unemployment Biggest Drain on Public Purse, Says New Nordic Studies
  10. Dialogue Platform17,000 Women, 515 Babies in Turkish Prisons, a Report Reveals
  11. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCharlotte Hornets' Nicolas Batum Tells Kids to "Eat Well, Drink Well, Move!"
  12. ECR GroupSyed Kamall: We Need a New, More Honest Relationship With Turkey