In a decision announced on November 28, 2013, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) in Geneva ruled favorably on a petition filed by Allen Weiner, Director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law at Stanford Law School, that contests the illegal arrest, conviction and ongoing detention of sixteen Vietnamese social and political activists. UNWGAD held that the detention and subsequent criminal conviction of these activists violated international human rights obligations that are binding on Vietnam and called upon the Vietnamese government to “immediate[ly] release” the detainees.
The activists were convicted under various Vietnamese criminal laws that outlaw “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” the “undermining of national unity” and participating in “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The petition, which was filed in July 2012, alleged that the detention of these activists violated Vietnam’s international obligations under, among other things, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to Vietnam’s contentions that the detainees were convicted under existing provisions of the Vietnamese criminal code, the Working Group held that “the criminal provisions that gave rise to the charge against the [detained] individuals and their subsequent conviction by the court cannot be regarded as consistent with the relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” UNWGAD further noted that “the holding and expressing of opinions, including those which are not in line with official Government policy, are protected under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
According to Weiner, Senior Lecturer at Stanford Law School and counsel for the petitioners, the arrest and conviction of these activists was merely part of a broader effort by the Vietnamese government to suppress the expression of any political views that challenge either the Vietnamese government or its policies. Weiner noted that the detainees, many of whom were engaged in online journalism or blogging, were peacefully engaging on a range of social and political issues, including opposing official corruption and calling for multi-party democracy and electoral fairness. Some activists objected to Vietnam’s relations with China, while others opposed the arrest and trial of other Vietnamese citizens on political grounds. Some opposed environmentally harmful bauxite mining projects and land grabs by the state and others argued for labor rights or improved access to education.
“In short, these young activists were engaged in the kind of peaceful political expression that all of us in democratic states take for granted as a fundamental right,” said Weiner. He expressed gratitude that UNWGAD “ruled so clearly that the Vietnamese government is legally required to release these detainees.”
The detainees are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Redemptorist Church in Vietnam, and many were charged as being members of Viet Tan, a Vietnamese pro-democracy party.
UNWGAD was emphatic in rejecting Vietnam’s contention that the activists were not arrested for being journalists and bloggers, but rather for their violation of Vietnamese laws. The Working Group specifically stated that a purported “[v]iolation of national legislation as referred to by the Government [of Vietnam] does not in and of itself justify detention.” In a holding that categorically rejects the Vietnamese Government’s strategy of relying on its vague criminal statutes to suppress political speech, UNWGAD ruled that “the criminal provisions that gave rise to the charge against the sixteen individuals and their subsequent conviction by the court cannot be regarded as consistent with the relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” The Working Group reiterated that “the holding and expressing of opinions, including those which are not in line with official Government policy, are protected under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” The Working Group also stated, as Weiner had argued in his petition and subsequent communications to UNWGAD, that the Vietnamese Government had not provided any evidence “of any violent action or actions on the part of any of the detainees.”
Based on these findings, the Working Group called upon Vietnam “to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation, which include the immediate release of the aforementioned individuals.” The Working Group further called upon the Vietnamese Government to provide adequate reparation to the detainees to compensate them for the violations of their rights. It also reminded Vietnam of its obligations “to bring its laws into conformity with international law, in particular international human rights law.”
Weiner described this as a significant decision: “The use by governments of their legal systems to stifle dissent and suppress challenges to illegal governmental restrictions and human rights abuses is a growing trend around the world.” UNWGAD’s decision “reflects a clear statement that countries may not rely on repressive domestic laws as an excuse to evade their human rights obligations under international law.”
Although the decision of UNWGAD is not itself legally binding, Weiner explained that “it represents an authoritative interpretation of international legal obligations that Vietnam has accepted and that are already binding on them.” He added that “under the circumstances, the Vietnamese government can no longer claim that it has any plausible legal basis for continuing to incarcerate these activists.” Weiner urged Vietnam to comply with its international human rights obligations.
The petitioners are as follows: Mr. DANG Xuan Dieu, Mr. HO Duc Hoa, Mr. NGUYEN Van Oai, Mr. CHU Manh Son, Mr. DAU Van Duong, Mr. TRAN Huu Duc, Mr. LE Van Son, Mr. NONG Hung Anh, Mr. NGUYEN Van Duyet, Mr. NGUYEN Xuan Anh, Mr. HO Van Oanh, Mr. THAI Van Dung, Mr. TRAN Minh Nhat, Ms. TA Phong Tan, Mr. TRAN Vu Anh Binh and Mr. NGUYEN Dinh Cuong.
“I have been honored by the opportunity to serve these brave young activists who are seeking merely to build better lives for the citizens of Vietnam. I commend the Working Group for issuing so clear a statement about the illegal nature of Hanoi’s activities and look forward to the immediate release of these detainees and others who have been imprisoned in violation of their international human rights,” said Weiner.
The decision of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is available here.
About Allen S. Weiner
Allen S. Weiner is senior lecturer in law, director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law, and co-director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation at Stanford University. He is an international legal scholar with expertise in such wide-ranging fields as international and national security law, the law of war, international conflict resolution, and international criminal law (including transitional justice). His scholarship focuses on international law and the response to the contemporary security threats of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He also explores the relationship between international law and the invocation of domestic “war powers” in connection with the U.S. response to terrorism. In the realm of international conflict resolution, his highly multidisciplinary work analyzes the barriers to resolving violent political conflicts. Weiner’s scholarship is deeply informed by experience; he practiced international law in the U.S. Department of State for more than a decade advising government policymakers, negotiating international agreements, and representing the United States in litigation before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Court of Justice, and the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Before joining the Stanford Law School faculty in 2003, Weiner served as legal counselor to the U.S. Embassy in The Hague and attorney adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State. He was a law clerk to Judge John Steadman of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
About Stanford Law School
Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a new model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.