UN expert commends Vietnam’s progress, urges increased civic participation

Vietnamese environment activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong holding a banner during a protest in Ho Chi Minh in 2017. Hoang Thi Minh Hong had worried for months she could become the next environmental activist swept up in Vietnam's crackdown, so she closed her NGO and began keeping a low profile. But it wasn't enough, and last month she became the fifth environmentalist jailed for tax evasion, in what activists see as a campaign to silence them. (Photo by Handout / Hoang Vinh Nam / AFP)

UN Special Rapporteur Surya Deva, in his recent visit to Vietnam, commended the nation’s progress in poverty reduction and sustainable development while emphasizing the need for greater civic participation, particularly highlighting the challenges faced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country.

Deva’s remarks come against the backdrop of recent incidents involving Vietnamese NGOs. In June this year, Hoang Thi Minh Hong, founder of the now-defunct NGO CHANGE, was taken into custody in Ho Chi Minh City. CHANGE, established in 2013 by Hong, played a pivotal role in mobilizing Vietnamese youth to address critical environmental issues such as climate change, illegal wildlife trade, and pollution.

This move was perceived by many as a crackdown on environmental activism. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, expressed concern over Vietnam’s use of tax laws to target environmentalists with politically motivated prosecutions.

Hoang Thi Minh Hong, recognized for her impactful work, including participation in the Obama Foundation Scholars program and being listed by Forbes among the most influential Vietnamese women, became a notable figure in this crackdown.

In September, a court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Hoang to three years in prison for dodging US$275,000 in taxes related to her environmental campaign group.

The 50-year-old is at least the fifth environmental campaigner to be jailed on tax evasion charges in the last two years following the sentencing of four environmental human rights defenders, Nguy Thi Khanh, Mai Phan Loi, Bach Hung Duong, and Dang Dinh Bach, for tax evasion. as Vietnam’s authoritarian government steps up a crackdown on activists.

Ben Swanton, co-director of Project 88, a non-profit advocating human rights in Vietnam, remarked that Hong’s arrest contradicted the Vietnamese government’s claims of upholding the rule of law and supporting civil society’s role in the country’s energy transition.

In response to these events, Nguyen Duc Thang, Deputy Spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, reiterated Vietnam’s commitment to environmental protection, sustainable development, and the lawful operation of NGOs within the country.

Deva’s visit and observations underscore the complexity of Vietnam’s development journey. While acknowledging the government’s efforts in poverty reduction and environmental sustainability, he highlighted the essential role of civic participation and the challenges NGOs face in contributing to these efforts.

The Special Rapporteur’s upcoming detailed report to the Human Rights Council in September 2024 is expected to offer further insights and recommendations for enhancing inclusive and sustainable development in Vietnam.

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