- Fifty-two winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize have signed on to a letter calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to vote against Vietnam’s bid for membership.
- The letter cites the imprisonment of Nguy Thi Khanh, founder of Hanoi-based GreenID and Vietnam’s first Goldman Prize winner, on tax evasion charges, as well as the case of Dang Dinh Bach, an environmental lawyer and former director of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center, also imprisoned on tax-related charges.
- Noting that the UN General Assembly has declared a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to be a universal human right, the letter asks how Vietnam will uphold this right with these experts behind bars and many in civil society concerned about the possibility of more arrests.
Citing growing repression against environment defenders in Vietnam, 52 celebrated environmentalists from across the globe have signed a joint letter calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to vote against Vietnam’s bid for membership.
A vote on Vietnam’s candidacy is expected to take place during the 51st UNHRC session, which began this week. If approved, Vietnam would serve as part of the council for its 2023-25 term.
The authors of the letter, all winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, note the controversial imprisonment of Nguy Thi Khanh, founder of Hanoi-based GreenID and Vietnam’s first Goldman Prize winner, for two years on allegations of tax evasion. Khanh, arguably the country’s most high-profile voice on climate and energy issues, was sentenced in June after being arrested at the start of the year.
The letter notes that UN special rapporteurs have found “Vietnam’s tax laws are incompatible with human rights norms, and are being used to silence leaders of nonprofit organizations.”
“Over the last 10 years, Ms. Khanh has worked cooperatively with the government of Vietnam to pioneer strategies that helped lay the foundation for the country’s ambitious climate goals, including Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2025 made last November at COP 26,” the letter states.
Bobby Peek, the director of South Africa-based groundWork who won a Goldman Prize in 1998 and signed the UNHRC letter, shares his personal impression of Khanh.
“She invited me to Vietnam in 2019, and I met with state officials, NGOs and industry, and she was clearly well-respected,” he says. “It was clear that she was making inroads into getting an understanding among government that you don’t have to fear civil society.”
The letter also discusses Dang Dinh Bach, an environmental lawyer and former director of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center, whose five-year sentence on tax charges was recently upheld at an appeal trial.
“Indeed, these arrests have raised concern that more environmental defenders could face criminal prosecution and imprisonment,” the authors note. “Ms. Khanh, Mr. Bach, and other environmental defenders currently imprisoned in Vietnam have dedicated their lives to creating a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, which was declared a universal human right by the UN General Assembly last year. With these experts behind bars and concerns about the possibility of more arrests, how will Vietnam uphold this universal right?”
Concerns over the situation in Vietnam have also come from within the UN itself.
At the start of the latest UNHRC session, UN Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif said: “the government’s growing restrictions on civic space and fundamental freedoms, as well as the sentencing of people on charges related to their human rights work and efforts to promote a clean, healthy and sustainable environment are worrisome. I urge the government to … release those who have been arbitrarily detained or imprisoned for such activities.”
For its part, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that Khanh was prosecuted for tax evasion, not her climate work.
Peek, meanwhile, says it has been difficult to respond to Khanh’s sentencing, which stunned observers of Vietnam.
“I felt helpless, and I still do to a certain extent,” he says. “It’s someone I’ve met, and it could be me. I have three children; she has three children; we both run environmental justice NGOs, and our staff looks up to us for guidance, and when leadership is imprisoned, it has a big impact on staff.”
“I was amazed how she navigated those spaces of the government,” Peek adds. “She did it with aplomb and deep respect.”
Beyond the organizations formerly run by Khanh, Bach and other jailed climate activists, these prison sentences continue to reverberate throughout Vietnam’s civil society.
One NGO leader shares that their organization recently canceled a planned climate leadership camp due to government pressure and is uncertain about moving forward with other events.
While Vietnam’s recent sentencing of climate activists is notable, Peek stresses that this is not an issue for one country alone.
“Khanh’s imprisonment is not just a Vietnamese issue,” he says. “It’s a global issue, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The UN itself needs to have pressure put on it so that violence of any kind against society doesn’t become the norm.”
Banner image: Nguy Thi Khanh is arguably Vietnam’s most high-profile voice on climate and energy issues. Image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.