A boost to the EU’s trade policy agenda and Vietnam’s quest for international respectability comes in the form of the recently concluded trade deal which is now entering its final stage of scrutiny by MEPs, followed by a vote to ratify it in March 2019.
EU and Vietnamese businesses alike would benefit from the liberalisation of virtually all bilateral trade between the two partners which would open up the flow of international investment. But beyond trade and geopolitics there is another side to the EU-Vietnam trade deal: human rights.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the human rights situation in Vietnam. In a country where basic freedoms such as the freedom of speech or religious rights are routinely denied to the population and where political opposition is systematically repressed, the European Commission’s pro-business agenda is simply not enough.
The Commission has indeed included in the deal some minimal human rights provisions. But these provisions are so weak that no one from the EU’s or Vietnam’s civil society take them seriously.
As it stands, there is simply nothing meaningful in the deal that would prevent the Vietnamese authorities to violate its population’s human rights, or even to incentivise change on the ground. With no carrot nor stick, this deal won’t bring any hope to the 97 Vietnamese prisoners of conscience identified by Amnesty International, detained in horrendous conditions.
Perversely, these token human rights clauses are actually counterproductive, as they are being used by the Vietnamese authorities to claim that the situation is improving.
Consider the story of Ms Do Thi Minh Hanh. She was arrested on 23 February 2010 and sentenced to seven years in prison on the charge of “disrupting security” because she had organised a strike for workers of a shoe factory. After being tortured she was moved to a prison 1700km away from her family.
Following intense international pressure, she was released in June 2014, but kept under constant surveillance and harassment. She and her family have been the target of numerous physical attacks, which resulted in Ms Hanh having to flee her home in July 2018 to seek protection within a Catholic convent.
As recently as May 2017 another trade union leader, Mr Hoang Duc Binh, was arrested and sentenced to fourteen years in prison on the charge of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties” and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”.
His crime is to have organised demonstrations of fishermen who lost their incomes due to the environmental disaster caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant.
MEPs in the International Trade Committee (INTA), who are responsible for the scrutiny of the agreement, witnessed first-hand evidence of the repressive nature of the Vietnamese regime in Brussels. Sadly, I ‘m not sure many of them actually realised it.
In a hearing organised on 10 October, a lone representative of Vietnamese civil society appeared before the INTA committee amongst a series of business representatives and institutional figures.
Dr Nguyen Quang A, a key opposition figure in Vietnam, gave very measured evidence and refrained from any harsh criticism, to the point that many proponents of the agreement must surely have felt vindicated by the absence of a stronger rebuke of the Vietnamese regime’s human rights record during this hearing.
But Mr A was in no position to speak his mind freely on this issue. On the very morning he left Vietnam for Brussels, he was visited at home by security officials who resorted to elaborate technics to intimidate him.
They failed – he displayed a great deal of courage and made it to Brussels. But he still had to go back to Vietnam afterwards, and it means he did not give MEPs the speech he intended to.
One of Mr A’s main points according to human rights activists close to him, that was not expressed clearly in the hearing, is that if the EU wants to secure progress in terms of human and labour rights in Vietnam, it must insist on pre-ratification as a pre-condition. Because the deal’s human rights clauses are so poor, little progress is expected to be secured afterwards.
Some argue that we should tread carefully and refrain from asking too much from the Vietnamese, because if we do so we could end up pushing Vietnam into China’s orbit – while this deal is our chance to get a foothold in Asia.
But this does not hold. Vietnam already revealed its hand, we know for a fact that Vietnam is prepared to go quite far in the name of signing a trade deal with the West. In 2016 Vietnam agreed to a series of detailed commitments on labour rights, including specific legislative reforms, in order to join the TPP, a trade deal involving the US. In other words, they gave the US far more than we have been to date asking for.
We don’t have to settle for a bad deal. The TPP example shows that we can secure meaningful commitments from the Vietnamese authorities.
We just have to ask for it and make it clear that we won’t ratify the trade agreement unless our demands are met. Demanding that human rights are upheld and respected should always be top of our agenda.