On 08 May 2009, Viet Nam's human rights record was examined for the first time by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). While the country's participation in the new Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism is an important step, words are outweighed by facts.
Staging a massive 10-hour demonstration outside the UN and organising a side-event inside the UN, right next door to the Human Rights Council, Viet Nam's indigenous Khmer Krom called upon the international community for action.
A disappointing Universal Periodic Review
The sharp contrast between Viet Nam's self-congratulatory UPR report and those prepared for the Council by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) denotes a sad truth: while the regime has officially accepted to participate in this process, it has chosen not to take a critical look at its human rights record. This is an eloquent manifestation of the country's approach to cooperation with the United Nations. While the documents of the OHCHR and the submissions of human rights NGOs pointed to institutionalized human rights abuses in numerous fields, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh dismissed them as "unfounded reports" and rejected "allegations of ill will about democracy and human rights in Viet Nam". In his opening statement, he reasserted that "it is the consistent policy of the State to respect and guarantee human rights", adding that "the protection and promotion of economic, social and cultural rights in Viet Nam have made significant progress". The commitments made by Viet Nam on this occasion were not without reservations and consisted mainly of promises to fulfil their obligations under the treaties to which the country is already a party (an implied obligation of any country ratifying a treaty), to consider joining a number of key human rights instruments and to envisage inviting some of the Council's special procedures to Viet Nam (the ones whose work focuses on poverty, education, development and debt - but not the ones working on religion, freedom of expression, racism or the independence of judges). The country's report and the Vice Minister's statement therefore raised very serious questions on Viet Nam's intentions to collaborate with the United Nations in the field of human rights.
Indigenous Khmer Krom take the streets... and the Palais
Gathered outside the UN on Geneva's Place des Nations from 8AM till 6 PM, 500 indigenous Khmer Krom called upon the international community for action to protect human rights in Viet Nam. After joining hands in a human chain circling the Place des Nations, indigenous Khmer Krom performed a Visak Bochea (Buddhist rite) and read a letter addressed to High Commissioner for Human Rights N. Pillay [see attachment]. Buddhist monks deplored the lack of religious freedom in Viet Nam and denounced specific persecutions targeted at Khmer Krom Buddhists. In parallel, a Khmer Kampuchea-Krom delegation held a side-event inside the UN in which the situation of Viet Nam's indigenous peoples was discussed. Chairing the meeting, Hawaii Institute for Human Rights Director Joshua Cooper underlined Viet Nam's elusion of indigenous peoples in its UPR report and stressed that only state-controlled NGOs had been consulted in its preparation. Human Rights Watch's Geneva representatives presented the findings of their latest report on indigenous Khmer Krom in Viet Nam and expressed great concern at the current situation. Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation President Thach Ngoc Thach added that much remained to be done but rejoiced both in the mobilisation of indigenous Khmer Krom around the world. Already looking ahead to the upcoming meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Thach Ngoc Thach explained that his movement's peaceful work for human rights was "today's demonstration was a landmark, but we will go on, we will not stop until the discriminations against our people do not stop, we will not stop until human rights are guaranteed in Viet Nam. There is only one thing to do: resist, insist, persist".