VOICE delegation at the UN office in Geneva. From left to right: Anna Nguyen, Le Thi Minh Ha, and Dinh Thao. Source: VietnamUPR Facebook page
Haiy Le, October 9, 2017: When the human rights group, Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE), sent a delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014, the delegation was made up of three men and all were citizens of Vietnam. This year, the trio is all female.
“We did not purposely want to have a female delegation,” said Anna Nguyen, Director of Programs at VOICE. A more interesting point, she explained, are the different backgrounds — and continents — the three women come from. Anna is a lawyer born and raised in Australia. Joining her is Le Thi Minh Ha, the wife of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh who was sentenced in March 2016 to five years in prison by the Vietnamese government for founding and operating a successful independent news blog. The third member is Dinh Thao, a Vietnamese citizen who left her career as a medical doctor to become an activist working out of VOICE’s headquarters in the Philippines and is now stationed in Belgium as the European Union Program Coordinator.
As activists waging a long war against Vietnam’s authoritarian government, they are unbothered by the comments littered on the VOICE Facebook page calling them “dogs” and “liars” who should “die.” The group suspects the comments come from hacks paid by the Vietnamese government. In the spirit of free expression though, the malicious comments are free to stay. It’s the opposite of what Hanoi is doing.
In 2017 alone, Vietnam’s one-party Communist government has detained or sentenced 16 activists under the country’s draconian penal code, and specifically Article 88, which makes it a crime to “propagate” against the government. Human Rights Watch has reported on the country’s long history limiting freedom of expression, which has sent more than 100 activists to prisons. The country’s repression has led to thousands of refugees seeking political freedoms and economic opportunities to live and work elsewhere under more democratic and transparent governance.
VOICE was founded in 1997 as a legal aid office in the Philippines to help stateless Vietnamese refugees resettle in countries, including Australia, the U.S. and Canada. Since then, the nonprofit’s mission has branched out to include advocacy for human rights and the rule of law in Vietnam.
Anna’s career has evolved somewhat similarly. She began her career as a refugee lawyer in Australia where for three years she worked with asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. “That’s when I started to learn about the human rights situation in Vietnam. Instead of helping people leave the country, I wanted to explore why people were leaving in the first place. The war ended in 1975 but why are people still leaving?”
Since joining VOICE in 2014, Anna’s work includes communicating with foreign governments and multilateral organizations, and persuading them to use their influence to put pressure on Vietnam. She also makes sure these foreign bodies hear from independent activists and civil society groups in Vietnam. “Many of these activists are banned from traveling and don’t have a platform, so it’s great that we can give them a voice,” she said.
In 2014, a 23-member delegation from Hanoi met with the U.N. Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a review process on the human rights records of all UN Member States. The Vietnamese government agreed to the implementation of some UPR recommendations and rejected others, notably the release of prisoners and the revision of vague national security laws that are used to suppress human rights.
The goals of this year’s Mid-term UPR Advocacy Campaign are to follow up on the recommendations and to advocate for the prisoners, particularly Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, a technology entrepreneur and blogger who was sentenced to 16 years for “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” on January 2010; Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, better known by her pen name, Mother Mushroom, is a blogger convicted of “anti state propaganda” on June 2017 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment; and Tran Thi Nga, a blogger sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment on July 2017 for “anti state propaganda” in her sharing of articles and videos highlighting abuses tied to environmental crises and political corruption. In the past couple of months, there has been a rise in the number of female activists targeted by the government. Mother Mushroom wrote that she was motivated to create a better future for her two children.
The mid-term campaign, which runs from September 15 through October 10, has been in the planning stages since the last UPR. The delegation has organized a marathon of meetings with foreign bodies in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the Czech Republic to give suggestions on how these groups can exert pressure on Hanoi.
In a recent case that has made headlines for its Cold War style of abductions, a Vietnamese asylum seeker was snatched off the streets of Berlin in broad daylight on August 24 — one day before his asylum hearing — and whisked back to Vietnam on corruption charges. In a meeting with Germany’s Office of Foreign Affairs on September 15, VOICE raised concerns to Annette Knobloch, Deputy Head of Unit of South East Asia/Pacific.
“We made them a number of suggestions and then a few days after our meeting, it was announced in the news that Germany had expelled another diplomat,” Anna said.
As Vietnam’s biggest trading partner in the EU, Germany has influential leverage through its purse strings. There’s also Germany’s development aid to Vietnam, which in 2015 was $257 million distributed over two years.
On top of the meetings with Germany and other foreign governments, the delegates have communicated with UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defender, Michel Forst, and CIVICUS, a group working to strengthen civil society. VOICE’s collaboration with CIVICUS, which has consultative status with the UN, gave VOICE the opportunity to present in front of the UN Human Rights Council on September 19.
“We call on the Vietnamese government to implement in good faith the UPR recommendations it accepted in 2014,” Thao read in her statement. “We call on the UN Member States to urge Vietnam to free all prisoners of conscience.”
Thao said the presentation alone has made the 25-day campaign a successful one for her, in spite of the stressful logistics, the back-to-back meetings and the harassment from the Vietnamese government that she, her colleagues and family in Vietnam have received due to her activism.
After the campaign ends, the delegates plan to follow up on the meetings and maintain the contacts they met. “It’s really easy to meet people but if there’s nothing done after that, there’s no point in meeting them,” Anna acknowledged. They will also start making plans for the 3rd UPR in January 2019, which will involve more people, workshops and a UN session dedicated to addressing Vietnam’s human rights situation.
Being a human rights defender is like running in a marathon, Anna described. “You cannot expect to see the finish line straight away. It’s hard and arduous, and you will need to eventually pass on the baton to your comrades and colleagues. But like all marathons, you will eventually see the finish line.”
Haiy Le is a freelance journalist and previously worked at the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsela. She grew up listening to her father’s stories from the the Vietnam War and became more interested in Vietnamese foreign affairs while studying International Relations and Communication at Stanford University. Follow her @HaiyLe