Image: UNPO

The much-anticipated rollout of a landmark free-trade deal between the European Union and Vietnam has been delayed yet again, after the European Parliament refused to ratify the pact, which officials have been working on since 2012, citing concerns about human-rights abuses of ethnic minorities in Vietnam and the adjudication of disputes.

Hopes were high after last month’s meeting between the EU and Vietnam that the Europe-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) was set to be approved, partly because discussions about it have been going on for seven years now, but the European Parliament took a cautious approach and so the EU has elected to continue trading with Vietnam as it does now, rather than move to a new and more liberal trade relationship with Vietnam, which has a questionable human-rights record.

Vietnam is a fast-growing and competitive economy. Its bilateral trade with the EU has quintupled over the past decade. In 2013, two-way trade amounted to €27 billion (US$30 billion). By 2017 the EU became Vietnam’s second-biggest trading partner after Singapore, buying and selling goods worth more than $50 billion. If the EVFTA deal had been implemented, Vietnam’s gross domestic product could have grown further. But the EU put the brakes on the deal.

The crux of the EU’s concerns have been Vietnam’s abominable record relating to the mistreatment of critics and persecution of indigenous Cambodians living in the Mekong Delta, known as Khmer Krom, as well as Hanoi’s recalcitrant attitude to concrete reforms and non-compliance with a variety of international legal instruments.

In the Parliament, critics of the EVFTA asked whether the EU signing the trade deal was likely to bring about economic sustainability, given that Vietnam’s growth rate is already above expectations.

All evidence suggests that Vietnam’s political and judicial reforms have not kept pace with its impressive economic progress

Critics suggested that signing the deal might simply help Vietnam legitimize its policy of persecuting religious minorities and indigenous groups like the Khmer Krom. All evidence suggests that Vietnam’s political and judicial reforms have not kept pace with its impressive economic progress.

The policy of doi moi, which began 33 years ago, has brought Vietnam stellar economic growth, but not much social, structural or political reform – ensuring that persecution of Khmer Krom and denial of religious freedom are perpetuated.

A major hurdle that stopped the EU signing the deal was about trust – if a dispute arose under the agreement, the EU felt that Vietnam’s past conduct and its current political structure would not make it easy to resolve disagreements.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement before last month’s meeting calling on the European Parliament to “postpone the ratification of the proposed EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement until the Vietnamese government takes concrete steps to improve its increasingly abusive human rights record.”

Even if the EU were to accept Vietnam’s paper promise to improve its rights record, the next question is, does Vietnam genuinely think that the EU would hold that it has bona fide intention to implement fundamental principles referred to in the EVFTA, such as “good administrative behavior” relating to exchange and disclosure of information under Article 14.7, or “impartial and independent review” in Article 14.6, or labor and environmental law in Article 13.3?

The short answer is that Vietnam’s judiciary tends to work for the government, and as such the application of the rule of law under the EVFTA would be given less priority than economic prosperity.

In an attempt to get the EVFTA approved, Vietnam reportedly assured the EU that it would be ready to ratify a number of conventions under the International Labor Organization.

Vietnam, China and Cambodia share common traits when it comes to compliance with international obligations linked to human rights. Judging from experience, the stronger the economy, the less likely Vietnam would be to comply with the EU’s human-rights demands under the EVFTA.

Likewise, the EVFTA would shift the balance of negotiations and influence in favor of Vietnam. One recent analysis of the Group of Thirty leading economies predicted that Vietnam’s projected GDP could outrank Australia’s by 2050. The same analysis also doubted whether Australia would even be able to qualify for membership of the G30 club in 2050.

As Vietnam’s leadership stabilized and strengthened under the EVFTA, so would its influence on the world stage, resulting in the balance of future negotiations under the EVFTA likely tipping in Hanoi’s favor.

Vietnam’s brutality continues

Vietnam is well known for its official narrative of ethnic harmony and equitable postwar development. But one of Vietnam’s blueprint policies has been the suppression of Cambodian cultures and discrimination against the Khmer Krom. The bans on the Khmer language and schools for the Khmer Krom are still strictly enforced.

Pre-colonial-era policies like the forced changing of surnames, the eradication of the Cambodian language and the  forced adoption of Vietnamese values and customs continue to enrage the Khmer Krom and Cambodians.

The more such customs and values were imposed by successive rulers in Vietnam, the more rebellious the Khmer Krom became – as they had fought ferociously to protect the Mekong Delta from Vietnam’s violent annexation.

Vietnam’s doi moi policy has systematically discriminated against the Khmer Krom up to the present day. In 2011 the US State Department reported: “Although the government officially prohibits discrimination against ethnic minorities, long-standing societal discrimination against ethnic minorities persisted. Despite the country’s significant economic growth, some ethnic minority communities benefited little from improved economic conditions.”

Persecution of Khmer Krom

The issue of persecution of Khmer Krom monks was the subject of European Parliament resolutions in 2008, which noted the defrocking of 20 monks by Cambodian authorities at the request of Vietnam.

One particular monk activist, Tim Sakhorn, drew global attention in 2007 and his incarceration was the subject of a European Parliament resolution. He was arrested after a series of protests outside the Vietnamese Embassy in Cambodia in 2007. His protest began when Khmer Krom in Vietnam had their land confiscated.

After a protest in which five Khmer Krom monks were arrested by the Vietnamese government, Tim Sakhorn spent a year in a Vietnamese jail. He said in an interview in 2010, “I was stripped from my position as a monk, deported from a country [Cambodia] that I thought would protect me. The Vietnam government has been silencing Khmer Krom people for centuries.”

He said, “When I entered that jail cell [in Vietnam], I had no hope of ever returning home alive because there had been many stories of Khmer Krom prisoners who died in prison.”

The use of chemicals by Vietnam against Cambodians and Khmer Krom activists has been rumored for many decades and only a few survivors have lived to tell the story.

Tim Sakhorn confirmed the use of chemical weapons when he said, “I was beaten, tortured, intimidated, and injected with unknown substances. Still to today, I do not know what they have injected me with. The unknown substances numbed my body and I noticed that each day I got weaker and weaker.”

Vietnam’s influence to deny Khmer Krom a voice

Besides widespread persecution in their homeland, Vietnam successfully lobbied the United Nations to revoke the consultative status granted to Khmer Krom people in Vietnam by the UN Economic and Social Council.

The UN’s decision in 2012 attracted opposition and condemnation from rights groups, the US government and the EU, and a joint statement by 14 organizations. Despite this strong support, including the International Commission of Jurists and HRW, Vietnam prevailed.

The UN’s resolution to yield to Vietnam’s lobby was condemned by the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights: “It is shameful that many UN member states caved in to Vietnam’s pressure and became an accomplice in stifling the rightful voices of human rights-defenders. It sends a chilling signal to the people in Vietnam that the international community is not on their side in their quest for greater freedom.”

The EVFTA will certainly bolster Vietnam’s communism and become part of its doi moi legacy. Vietnam’s economic power and influence mean the EVFTA will also legitimize Vietnam’s continued policy of rights abuses, systematic discrimination and persecution against minority ethnic groups, including the indigenous Khmer Krom, as the EU’s influence on Hanoi declines.

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