UN denounces clampdowns on freedom of expression in Vietnam and Hong Kong

US human rights lawyer John Clancey with law firm Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners is led by police after being arrested under the new national security law in Hong Kong, China, 06 January 2021. (Credit: EPA / Jerome Favre)

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has voiced concerns over arrests of activists, rights defenders and journalists in both Hong Kong and Vietnam. 

UN human rights experts have expressed concern over the use of “vaguely defined laws” in Vietnam to “clampdown” on freedom of expression in the country after the conviction of three journalists earlier this week.

Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan – all of whom are members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) – were sentenced to between 11 and 15 years in Ho Chi Minh on Tuesday after being found guilty of charges of spreading anti-state propaganda.

Speaking during a press briefing on Friday, an OHCHR spokesperson warned that an increasing number of journalists, commentators and rights defenders are being arbitrarily detained under vaguely defined laws.

“[The accused] are then frequently held incommunicado for long periods in pre-trial detention, with regular reports of violations of the right to a fair trial and concerns about their treatment in detention,” Ravina Shamdasani, an OHCHR spokesperson, said at the press briefing in Geneva.

“Several of them have received lengthy sentences following their conviction for crimes against national security”, she added, going on to state that the increasingly frequent detentions violated freedom of expression in the country.

The warning comes just two days after OHCHR voiced concerns over an unprecedented roundup of pro-democracy activists and politicians in Hong Kong, where the UN high commissioner for human rights has also repeatedly called for a halt to the restriction of human rights and freedoms that have been imposed under the national security law (NSL).

A total of 53 people including academics, activists and prominent opposition figures were arrested on Wednesday in the latest in a series of detentions over alleged breaches of the NSL imposed by China’s government.

The roundup was condemned by Liz Throssell, an OHCHR spokesperson, on Thursday, who said the arrests - which concerned the holding of an unofficial “primary” election for the now-postponed 2020 Legislative Council election - were symptomatic of a clampdown on fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.

“These latest arrests indicate that – as had been feared – the offence of subversion under the National Security Law is indeed being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life,” said Throssell in a statement. 

“We call on the authorities to uphold their obligations under the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), and to refrain from using the National Security Law to suppress the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association”, she added.

Amid a global outcry over the legality of the accusations, the Hong Kong authorities have now released 50 of the individuals arrested. Activists Joshua Wong and Tam Tak-chi, who were already imprisoned, and former Democratic party chairman Wu Chi-wai are the only three still being held.