CLA Director Jennifer Ashton reports on consultations between DFAT and civil society preparatory to human rights dialogues with Vietnam and Laos.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) held the meetings in Canberra on 20/6/19, and Jennifer Ashton represented Civil Liberties Australia.
There were numerous other human rights organisations present – Human Rights Watch, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Law Council of Australia, Monash University Human Rights, Bahais, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) operating in the region (such as Children’s Fund), as well as representatives of the Vietnamese and Lao diaspora.
Once again, there was discussion of the utility of these dialogues and whether there could be measurable outcomes/benchmarks. Could NGOs participate as observers at the actual dialogues?
The Australia-Vietnam dialogue is expected to take place in Canberra on 9 August 2019.
There were a significant number of the Vietnamese diaspora in attendance. Among them a large group of Khmer Krom (ethnic Khmer who live in the Mekong delta region near Ho Chi Minh City), including two monks. The eight million Khmer Krom are represented at the Unrepresented Nations and People Organisation, where it has been noted that there are issues with freedom of expression, assembly, association, information and movement.
Their representatives raised several issues of concern, including language (children only have 2-3 hours per week of Khmer language teaching), new cyber-security laws such that social media is monitored, rights to ceremonies, such as their New Year celebration that they cannot get official leave from their jobs to go back to their villages, state control of their religious authorities and a general fear that the young will lose their traditions.
They also cited an alarming incidence of blindness occurring in their region, believed to have been caused by chemicals and pesticides polluting their drinking water. According to them, NGOs that could provide assistance, do not have access to this region, as it is deemed sensitive.
Concern was expressed about a 70-year-old Australian who entered Vietnam without correct visas and was active in human rights training. Since early this year, he has been detained without charge: DFAT has made consular visits.
Human rights in Vietnam have not improved, delegates told the meeting. There was a lively discussion, with many vivid interventions. Vietnamese diaspora representatives stated that 43 activists were arrested in 2017, a number which rose to 140 in 2018.
Sentences have lengthened. Travel restrictions have also been imposed on activists. Several individual cases were also raised, including one person abducted from Thailand.
Participants cited examples of the EU and USA funding for unregistered NGOs and the families of political prisoners, resettlement for limited numbers of political prisoners and ambassadors designate consultations with NGOs before posting as models that Australia could emulate.
An orphaned victim of Agent Orange, now living in Sydney, spoke of the needs of the 3-4 million Vietnamese estimated to have been affected by the widespread spraying, even to the second or third generation.
While the Monsanto Company (in 2018 acquired as part of the crop science division of Bayer) had settled out of court with 50,000 US servicemen who had been affected, a court challenge by Vietnamese survivors was thrown out of court on the basis that Agent Orange was legal at the time. Some money has been provided for environmental clean-up in areas around US airbases in Vietnam; little has gone to the “peace villages” which are hospices for sufferers.
The refoulement of Vietnamese asylum-seeking boat arrivals and their subsequent security on return was raised, but was declared outside the purview of DFAT.
AHRC and Monash University briefed participants on the master’s level human rights training they are developing through the law faculty of the Vietnam National University. Questioned whether it was more effective to train in Australia, the response was that it is far cheaper in Vietnam and could thus reach more participants.
The Australia-Laos dialogue is scheduled for Canberra on 12 August 2019. The previous one took place in 2017.
This was a smaller and quieter meeting. The relations between Laos and Australia was characterised as warm and constructive. It was noted that a major constraint in Laos is that in a small, impoverished country there is little capacity to develop or implement human rights standards.
A major concern is the construction of dams – there are 63 now with 100 in total to be built. One dam has already burst. Laos is to be the storage battery of south-east Asia. Impacted villagers have been moved with false or non-existent information, delegates said.
There is a great deal of foreign, including Chinese, money leading to corruption. One participant characterised Laos as being dominated by Chinese money and Vietnam political influence.
Ongoing problems include those of youth who travel to Thailand for work, but return to renew visas. Their social media use in Thailand is monitored. This has a chilling effect on dispirited youth who are disincentivised.
The mystery of the disappearance of activist, Sombath Somphone, in 2012 continues, with current statements defaming his character.
DFAT continues to urge Laos to reduce the number of crimes for which the death penalty is imposed. The problems of international NGOs and national non-profit agencies in Laos were raised. New arrangements introduced in 2014, increase the number of steps required for project approval and limit the amount of money that could be given to local associations. Slowness of approvals means that funding cannot be guaranteed.
Mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review (at the Human Rights Council), scheduled for next January, were discussed, as was the possibility of supporting a Lao Human Rights body.
Jennifer Ashton OAM worked with UN High Commissioner for Refugees for two decades, operating from Zambia to Kazakhstan, including two years with UNAIDS in Myanmar. Her career started with the then-AUSAID and with Australian NGOs (in Cambodia from 1986-1989, work for which she received the OAM). Her first qualification in social work was followed by a Masters-by-correspondence through Deakin Uni as a nightly respite from the harsh daily realities of remote refugee camps.
- Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical, It is a mixture of equal parts of two herbicides, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. It was sprayed widely in Vietnam by US forces during the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975. ↑