On February 12, 2020, a critical opportunity was lost.
By approving the EU-Vietnam free trade and investment protection deals, the European Parliament lost their ability to leverage the agreement as a means of holding Vietnam accountable for ongoing and alarming violations of the religious freedoms of Christians and other religious groups within its borders.
Both international human rights experts and Vietnamese advocacy organizations pleaded with the European Parliament to utilize this opportunity to pressure Vietnam to address its deteriorating human rights record. The Parliament chose not to. Instead, the question remains urgent: what is next for Vietnamese Christians facing persecution and discrimination in their home country?
The situation today is precarious.
While the international community watches, the human rights climate in Vietnam has steadily worsened following the passage of a new Law on Belief and Religion hampering religious freedom in January 2018. This legislation requires religious groups to register with the government in order to conduct their regular services and activities — information that the government has subsequently employed to identify and target Christians along with other minorities. Unregistered groups face greater threats than before.
For a number of ethnic minority Christians living in rural Vietnam, the situation is even more dire. The 2019 USCIRF Annual Report states that “an estimated 2,000 Protestant Hmong and Montagnard households—approximately 10,000 individuals—in the Central Highlands continued to be stateless because local authorities refused to issue ID cards, household registration, and birth certificates, in many instances in retaliation for refusing to renounce their faith.”
That’s 10,000 individuals who are being denied access to the rights of citizenship simply because of what they believe.
Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights directs that: “Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” The impacts of being forced to live as de facto stateless are far-reaching. Lacking a government-issued ID or birth certificate can inhibit or prohibit an individual’s ability to acquire an education or employment, obtain access to healthcare, travel, or buy a home. Functionally stateless Vietnamese Christians are also at risk of being rendered homeless, as they may be evicted from their houses or forced from their villages and then refused new residence upon registration.
Put simply, the right to citizenship is “the right to have rights.” Without those legal rights, Christians and other minorities are left in a gravely vulnerable position.
When the international community hesitates to act, it is always the oppressed and the vulnerable who pay the price. The EU was “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” The European Parliament has a responsibility to uphold these values and to leverage every diplomatic tool at its disposal to pressure Vietnam to protect the basic right of all their citizens to freely practice their faith. Global leaders and media outlets alike have a responsibility to be vocal in calling for an end to the abuses. No one should be forced to choose between their citizenship and their faith. No one should have to fear being turned out of home or stripped of basic rights simply because they refuse to compromise their most deeply held convictions — the ones that make a person who they are.
The right to freedom of religion or belief is an integral part of the fabric of our shared humanity and deserves to be zealously protected, whether in Europe, Vietnam, or elsewhere around the globe.