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Vietnam detains trade unionist, rights group says

Vu Minh Tien’s arrest would be the second arrest of a union activist in a month.

By RFA Staff

May 23, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Police in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi have arrested trade unionist Vu Minh Tien, according to The 88 Project, an international nonprofit that campaigns for freedom of speech in Vietnam.

Tien is head of policy and legal affairs at the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor and director of the Institute for Workers and Trade Unions, the group said.

Tien was being held under Article 337 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which covers “deliberate disclosure of classified information; appropriation, trading [and] destruction of classified documents,” the group said.

Tien was last seen in public at a workshop in Ho Chi Minh City on March 21, The 88 Project said.

News of his arrest follows the detention on April 24 of Nguyen Van Binh, director general of the Labor Ministry’s legal department.

Binh was arrested for disclosing state secrets under Article 337, according to state broadcaster the Voice of Vietnam.

Vietnam only has one state-affiliated union. The two unionists were working to bring labor law in line with international standards by ratifying International Labour Organization Convention 87 which allows workers to form unions, The 88 Project said.

“These arrests are yet another example of the failure of international organizations to say a mumbling word about the advocates and reformers they are so keen to champion until these people wind up in jail,” said the group’s co-director, Ben Swanton.

He called on the International Labour Organization, the European Union and the United States to immediately issue public statements condemning Vietnam for arresting the trade unionists.

“Western governments that claim to care about human rights need to break their silence about Vietnam’s policy of violating those very same rights,” Swanton said.

Radio Free Asia phoned Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask about Tien’s arrest but no one answered. A call to the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor was also not answered.

International nonprofit CIVICUS joined calls for the unconditional release of Tien and Binh.

“These arrests highlight the systematic targeting of human rights defenders in country by the regime and makes a mockery of Vietnam’s membership of the Human Rights Council,” said CIVICUS Asia researcher Josef Benedict referring to Vietnam’s place on the United Nations rights body for a three-year term. 

“We call on the international community to speak up, especially the EU, and push for the release of the two union activists and for greater freedom for trade unions in the country.”

International naïvety

A human rights activist based in Hanoi, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, told RFA that Vietnam's one-party government will never allow the establishment of independent trade unions or similar organizations outside their control. Consequently, they will seek to eliminate trade union advocates by any means necessary, the activist said.

“When participating in economic agreements, Hanoi initially pretends to comply with the terms. However, they soon find ways to arrest many activists, from environmentalists to civil society leaders, and now trade union advocates,” he said.

According to the activist, the international community was naïve to believe that Vietnam would adhere to the agreements it signed. Hanoi will continue to strengthen its authoritarian regime and has no intention of empowering its citizens, he added. 

A senior university lecturer in Hanoi, who also declined to be named, noted that independent trade unions were "unlikely to have room to maneuver" in Vietnam at this time, as the "police force dominates the country's leadership." Five out of 16 Politburo members come from a police background, and the current Minister of Public Security, To Lam, has been nominated for the position of State President, the lecturer said.

Phil Robertson, former deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, told RFA that the latest arrests show that the Communist Party intends to "crack down hard on any sign of liberalization for workers."

"Going after top [Labor Ministry] officials, and now the [Vietnam General Confederation of Labor], shows a degree of rights abusing paranoia that is truly astonishing," he said. "The EU needs to take action under the EU-Vietnam [Free Trade Agreement] to show that rights respecting labor reforms are not negotiable in Vietnam."

Patti Gossman, associate director and senior editor of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said the international community shouldn't assume Vietnam is going to honor its international agreements on labor rights.

"Vietnamese authorities are trying to convince the world otherwise, but the truth is that there is simply no possibility for any independent organizations, particularly anything supporting independent labor unions or supporting labor rights in Vietnam," she said.

Edited by Mike Firn and Joshua Lipes.

RFA Vietnamese contributed reporting.

This report has been updated to include comments from a Vietnamese activist and university lecturer, as well as from former Human Rights Watch officials.



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