Vietnam admits arrests for possession of UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The government of Vietnam has admitted that it arrested an indigenous rights activist for possessing translated copied of the United Nations Declartion on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In an extraordinary statement, made to the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights on 20 September 2021 and just now made public, the government of Vietnam justified these arrests as being necessary to maintain national unity in Vietnam. In doing so, it has effectively sought to justify the criminalization of possession of a UN document that establishes core human rights belonging to indigenous people that the government of Vietnam itself voted to create.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), in the words of the United Nations, "is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples" and "establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples." It was approved by the UN General Assembly on 13 September 2007. It was passed with 144 votes in favour, 11 abstentions (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine) and 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States). Vietnam was one of the 144 countries to vote in its favor.
In April 2021, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) brought to international attention the case of Mr. Duong Khai, a Khmer Krom activist campaigning for recognition of the indigenous status of the Khmer Krom people in Vietnam, who was arrested and threatened for possession of translated copies of the UNDRIP. In June 2021, a team of UN independent experts wrote a Joint Allegation Letter to the governmment of Vietnam demanding an answer and expressing their "concern that these reported threats may be connected to his efforts to disseminate United Nations documents, in particular the promotion and translation of the UNDRIP, and may have chilling effect on any expression, by all those, including human rights defenders, who draw attention to minority and indigenous people's issues in the country."
On 20 September 2021, the government of Vietnam responded to the UN experts in a letter to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The response is deeply troubling. Instead of denying that such repressive actions took place, or admitting that they did and outlining a process for redress, the government of Vietnam admitted Mr. Duong Khai was indeed arrested for possession of copies of the UNDRIP and claimed that the arrest was justified in order to maintain "national unity" because, according to the government of Vietnam, there are no indigenous peoples in the country.
It is well-settled that indigenous people make up approximately 15% of Vietnam's population and that the Khmer Krom are one of the major indigenous communities. Yet Vietnam denies the existance of indigenous people, resulting in significant negative impacts on these communities. Mr. Duong Khai is one of many human rights defenders campaigning for recognition of indigenous status, and persecuted for doing so. In Vietnam, seeking indigenous status is so dangerous that an indigenous person wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals stating "Implementing the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ensure No Khmer-Krom are left behind" can be arrested.
This case presents a troubling baseline for the status of human rights in Vietnam. If, in Vietnam, a person can be criminalized merely for possessing and distributing UN human rights instruments that their own government has had a hand in creating, there can be no limit to the ability of the state to repress its citizens and eradicate freedom of expression and opinion.
Unfortunately, all too often today, Member States of the United Nations justify the worst repression under the guise of "national unity." Indigenous communities and religious and ethnic minorities regularly bear the brunt of this fundamental perversion of the international system. Yet rarely do states so explicitly and openly violate these rights as the government of Vietnam has done in this case. By criminalizing the mere possession of a document that presents solely the text of a UN human rights instrument the government of Vietnam is openly repudiating the very foundations of the international order.
In light of the government of Vietnam's admission in this case, the UNPO is calling on the entire international community to unequivocally condemn the government's action in this case and to ensure that any aid or support to the country or trade with it is conditioned on the provision of adequate protection for human rights defenders, indigenous communities, and freedom of expression and opinion.