Last week, the UN elected serial human rights repressor Vietnam to its 47-seat Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Despite operating a single party communist regime—under which freedom of speech, right to protest, and many other liberties are routinely denied—Vietnam received the most votes from UN members out of the 14 newly elected countries (184 out of 192). Which is kind of ironic when you consider that voting is a practice not many of the country's 90 million citizens are too familiar with.
The result is just as hypocritical as it is confusing; in the past, Vietnam's Hanoi regime has stubbornly refused permission for the UNHRC to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. Over 50 dissidents have been imprisoned already this year for exercising their right to free speech, while others are routinely beaten, harassed, and intimidated. Uprisings from minorities and religious groups aren't tolerated either, and are often crushed with completely unnecessary force. For example, a small group of Catholic protesters in Nghe An Province were recently met bya reported 3,000 police and soldiers wielding guns, batons, and grenades.
"Vietnam is still a poor country rife with corruption and moral degradation," says Nguyen Van Dai, an activist who's well acquainted with the government’s means of oppression. In 2007, the communist regime seized Dai for giving lectures on human rights to students at his office in Hanoi. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment and remains under house arrest until 2015. Since his release from prison in 2011, Dai has been detained five times by the Vietnamese security agency, being questioned for at least three days on each occasion.
Despite his treatment, Dai remains committed to spreading his message. "I blog to express my opinion on political, diplomatic, and human rights issues," he said. "I also want to explain political rights to Vietnamese people so they can use their rights to protect themselves."
Whether Dai's mission will become any easier now that Vietnam is a member on the Human Rights Council remains to be seen. From 2014 to 2016, Vietnam will be in the illustrious company of five other new UNHRC recruits—China, Cuba, Russia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia—that are better known for violating human rights than observing them. Vietnam clearly wasn't voted onto the council for its unwavering commitment to civil liberties, so why did 184 countries offer their backing?
The cynical explanation would be money. Vietnam has frequently been touted as a star economic performer and is projected to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies between now and 2050. Of particular interest to investors is the country’s nuclear energy, with the US, South Korea, and Russia already courting Hanoi to get in on an industry estimated to be worth $50 billion by 2030.
With the Western economy still reeling from the debt crisis, developed countries are salivating over any opportunity to attract Asian capital, as demonstrated last month when George Osborne exchanged his dignity for potential investments on a business trip to China. And looking over some of the other new inductees to the council—China, Russia, oil-rich Saudi Arabia—it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to wonder if countries might be willing to put principles aside when voting for a token, toothless UN committee in the hope of sharing future profits.
"Vietnam's election shows how horse-trading for positions among governments at the UN has trumped the requirement to uphold human rights principles," says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. Aside from the business angle, Phil also thinks that historical sympathy and naivety over the extent of Vietnam’s "disastrous" human rights record played a part in their election. "For many members of the public in European countries, Vietnam is now a new tourist spot that's cheaper than Thailand and has nice beaches and mountains," he said. "The whole consideration of human rights doesn't even enter their mind."
As for Vietnam’s motives for joining the council, many suspect its membership will be used as a shield to deflect awkward questions about abuses. Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh was quoted in state media as saying: "Vietnam’s selection for this position shows that the country has won high degree [sic] of confidence from UN member states." He later emphasized that this should be used as a stepping stone for Vietnam’s "active integration" into the global economy, while ignoring any suggestion that the country’s wanton abuse of freedoms should be addressed now that the regime has been tasked with addressing wanton abuses of freedom around the world.
So, it seems Hanoi is also viewing this political pantomime as a chance to raise some cash and buy its security services some shiny new batons. According to a contact of mine at the UN who wished to remain anonymous, Vietnam's human rights hatchet job has been the one hurdle in its dash towards prosperity, so council membership will serve as a useful bargaining chip in negotiations for lucrative trade deals with the EU and US.
Of course, the UNHRC itself isn't exactly free of blame here. By allowing itself to become a venue for economic cottaging, it is making it tougher for dissidents worldwide to peacefully exercise their basic human rights. The body is now in its second incarnation, replacing the UN Human Rights Commission in 2006 after it was deemed weak and ineffective. Having entrusted Vietnam and those five other rights-violating countries with protecting human rights around the world, perhaps it's just a matter of time before this council also ends up on the scrapheap.