The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to development, Mr. Surya Deva’s, upcoming official country visit to Vietnam from 6 to 15 November 2023 is a welcome opportunity to press the Vietnamese authorities on the relationship between internet freedom and the right to development, said ARTICLE 19.
Mr. Surya Deva’s visit is a prime opportunity to address the barriers to the advancement of the right to development in Vietnam, considering the significant challenges posed to the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, and denial of the right to freedom of expression of the Vietnamese people.
The right to development in Vietnam is currently threatened by the government’s efforts to restrict public space, particularly online. While the internet and social media once facilitated a broader civic space, recent legal and technological developments have enabled greater government repression.
ARTICLE 19’s Global Expression Report 2023 indicates that Vietnam is in a state of crisis with respect to freedom of expression, with almost 200 human rights defenders currently imprisoned, many due to their online activities.
The Vietnamese government has recently mandated the closure of numerous news outlets in a move framed as “privatization” of the press. There is an evident misuse of cybersecurity law and fake news regulations, leading to the punishment of individuals for online expression, with recent instances including accusations against a chef for “insulting the press” and an individual for “insulting the police.” The resulting chilling effect on the freedom of expression and information has a direct negative impact on the right to development by limiting public discussion on development needs and solutions, and limiting citizens’ access to critical information.
The government has a history of employing digital tracking tools to surveil and intimidate its citizens, fostering a climate of fear on social platforms. Moreover, activists and NGO workers face continued harassment, with many organizations threatened with closure or false accusations of tax evasion.
The draft decree to replace Decree No. 72/2013/ND-CP is particularly alarming, as it would intensify censorship and surveillance, requiring online platforms to monitor and remove content proactively and comply with rapid takedown orders. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) has already expressed concerns over the violation of expression rights, data localization, and content monitoring obligations in the decree. These measures would not only infringe on freedom of expression but also privacy rights, through mandatory identity verification and user data retention requirements.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned about the ‘Draft Decree’ that is set to replace existing internet services and online information management decrees, and urges Mr. Surya Deva to highlight the potential risks it poses to freedom of expression, privacy, and overall human rights in Vietnam as followed the impact on the right to development.
It is our firm belief that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Special Rapporteur possess a distinct potential to guide both public and private sectors in aligning with international human rights standards. As Vietnam undergoes significant economic transformation, it remains imperative for businesses within its jurisdiction to uphold the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), which accentuate transparency, accountability, and an unwavering commitment to respecting human rights.
ARTICLE 19 calls on Mr. Surya Deva to leverage his position as a UN Special Rapporteur to communicate the importance of adhering to international human rights standards, protecting internet freedoms, and facilitating digital development in Vietnam, in a manner that fully respects and upholds human rights. This, we believe, is integral to achieving inclusive and sustainable development in the country. In particular, we encourage Mr. Surya Deva to call on Vietnam to:
- advocate for freedom of expression protection as the prerequisite of the Right to Development for Vietnamese rights holders;
- communicate the necessity of adhering to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights , with a particular emphasis on the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) private sector its accountability, civil society engagement to respect and protect rights holders from the authoritarian regime;
- call for an abandonment of Decree No. 72/2013/ND-CP, which imposes undue restrictions on online freedom, requiring platforms to monitor and proactively remove content;
- amend or repeal the Cybersecurity Law in whole, and in particular Articles 117, 318, 331 of the Penal Code, and other provisions which have been used to arbitrarily restrict the freedom of expression and information or detain and imprison Vietnamese citizens merely for exercising these rights;
- immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been arbitrarily imprisoned for their human rights advocacy, many of whom have been imprisoned in reprisal for their research and documentation of development and environmental projects in Vietnam, including Pham Doan Trang and Dang Dinh Bach.
We stand ready to support Mr. Surya Deva with his official country visit and subsequent follow-up.