Vietnam under review at the Human Rights Council: Cyber attacks on civil society a key concern

Jon Fox contributed to this blog post.

Amidst reports of declining human rights at home, Vietnam will appear before the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday for a review of its human rights record. Access, as part of a coalition of freedom of expression organizations, is urging the international community to address Vietnam’s deteriorating human rights situation, in particular the increase in cyber attacks against civil society.

For the review, Access joined with Article 19, English PEN, and PEN International in submitting a shadow report, recommending that the government of Vietnam release writers, journalists and bloggers currently who have been detained in violation of their rights to free speech; stop harassment of NGO workers; and end all restrictions on the exercise of human rights online, including the arbitrary surveillance of internet users in Vietnam. Together, we urge the international community to put pressure on the government of Vietnam to ensure that Vietnam’s review amounts to more than empty promises.

Vietnam’s appearance before the HRC is part of a process called Universal Periodic Review, which is a peer-review mechanism established in 2006 to assess the human rights records for all U.N. Member States, and provide those states the opportunity to commit to recommendations for improvement. In its first review in 2009, Vietnam accepted a number of recommendations to improve its record on freedom of expression — but since then, the government has continued to crackdown on writers, journalists, human rights defenders, and activists.

Access’ contribution to the shadow report focused on restrictions on the free exercise of human rights online, which in Vietnam include arbitrary surveillance of internet users, arrest and harassment of bloggers and human rights defenders, and laws that centralize control of the internet in government hands.

Cyber attacks on Vietnamese civil society

Online, Vietnamese authorities engage in both covert and open efforts to surveil and control Vietnamese internet users, and Vietnamese civil society organizations and actors — including independent media, human rights defenders, and citizen activists – are subject to a variety of attacks by pro-government actors. In recent months, cyber attacks on civil society in Vietnam have escalated to include Denial-of-Service (DoS), fake domain attacks, account takeovers, and defacing websites. More detailed accounts of these attacks are available in the joint report.

These attacks are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations as a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to promote and protect freedom of association, freedom of expression, and right to access information.

Since we submitted the shadow report, the media has reported that government-backed Vietnamese hackers are blocking, hacking, and spying on Vietnamese activists around the world, well beyond Vietnam’s borders. A California-based Vietnamese activist was targeted by keyloggers via a malicious link sent to her in an email, allowing hackers to harvest passwords, gain access to her private accounts, and ultimately post humiliating personal information online. Subsequent investigations have uncovered similar attacks on Associated Press reporter based in Hanoi, a Vietnamese math professor and democracy activist based in France, and an American staff member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation living in the United States.

Tightening controls via regulation

The joint submission also highlights that, since Vietnam’s first UPR, the government has expanded its efforts to control the internet, mandating international organizations initiate local data storage or open local offices, and exposing them to intermediary liabilities for what users say or share in their posts. From the report:

“A new draft executive decree proposed in April 2012, the Decree on Management, Provision and Use of Internet Services and Information on the Network aims to force foreign Internet companies like Facebook and Google to cooperate with authorities and require them to locate offices or appoint representatives in Viet Nam. (Only Yahoo! currently maintains an office in the country.) It would also require all Internet-related companies based in Viet Nam to house their servers in the country, a requirement that anonymous bloggers fear would jeopardize the security of their IP addresses. If the decree is enacted, it would make a wide range of intermediaries, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), social media networks, interactive message boards, and individual blogs liable for third-party content, and those found to commit violations could face heavy penalties.”

Since we submitted the joint report, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued and implemented Decree 72, on the “Management, Provision, Use of internet Services and Information Content Online”, which contains provisions legalizing content-filtering and censorship, and outlawing vaguely defined “prohibited acts.” Clause 20.4 of the decree bans personal blogs from providing “aggregated information,” which Vietnam’s Broadcast and Electronic Information Department has reportedly used as a justification to warn users not to “quote or share information from press agencies or websites of government agencies.” Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Le Nam Thang asserted that, “Personal webpage owners are only allowed to provide their own information, and are prohibited from taking news from media agencies and using that information as if it were their own.”

The enactment of Decree 72 was met with intense criticism from human rights organizations and governments alike for essentially outlawing the right to discuss news online — a gross violation of the freedom to seek, receive and impart information as prescribed by Article 19 of the ICCPR.

A shaky performance under the spotlight

As Vietnam braces for its appearance before the HRC, it’s already dealing with diplomatic headaches. Right before the country’s appearance at the Council, authorities prevented the travel of Pham Chi Dung, a writer known to be critical of government corruption and the lack of freedom in his country, in a move intended to ‘limit criticism’ of government practice at the HRC. Dunh, who has a valid Vietnam passport and Swiss visa and was scheduled to speak at events planned around the UPR, said he was stopped by police from boarding his flight in Ho Chi Minh City. According to Dung, Vietnamese authorities indicated that his presence in Geneva during its would be “harmful to the human rights image of Vietnam.” Predictably, this move is having the opposite effect of bringing Vietnam under more fire for its abuses.

To make matters worse, the AFP has reported that a Vietnamese diplomat who formerly served at the country’s consulate in Geneva, Dang Xuong Hung, says he has sought political asylum in Switzerland and has written a letter to the delegation representing Vietnam at the UPR, urging them to openly admit to Vietnam’s violations.

Recommendations for reform 

A full list of recommendations to Vietnam on free expression issues can be found in our joint report. Specifically regarding cyber attacks on civil society, we are calling on the government of Vietnam to adopt the following recommendations:

  • Repeal laws which place heavy restrictions on online anonymity, and which require ISPs to constrain freedom of expression.
  • End the arbitrary surveillance of internet users in Vietnam.
  • Ensure any communications surveillance is carried out only in line with international human rights obligations, respecting the requirements of necessity and proportionality.
  • Respect the right of internet users to access blogs and communications platforms based outside of Vietnam.
  • Refrain from interfering with and attacking the devices, accounts, and services used to facilitate the online activities and communications of internet users in Vietnam.

You can follow along Vietnam’s UPR via live webcast from 14:30–18:00 (CET) on Wednesday, 5 February and on social media using the hashtag #UPR18, #VietnamUPR, and #Vietnam. Our friends @pen_int and @article19asia are in Geneva and will be livetweeting from the HRC.