Human rights violations against the Montagnard people of the Vietnam Highlands

by Marco Pannella (ALDE) and Emma Bonino (ALDE)
to the Commission

According to the 16-page report published by Human Rights Watch on 12 May 2005, the Vietnamese Government is continuing to force Montagnard Christians to change their faith. According to Brad Adams, head of HRW's Asia Division, "Montagnards who attempt to practice their religion independently still face assaults and live in fear."

In March and April 2005, security forces in the province of Gia Lai conducted search operations in the houses of women whose husbands are in hiding in the jungle, during which some of the women were beaten.

Vietnam continues to refuse international inspectors free access to the Central Highlands in order to ascertain the circumstances of the Montagnard refugees repatriated by Cambodia.

On 14 March 2005, local police summoned a villager from Ia Grai district in Gia Lai Province, interrogated him and warned him not to practise religion without the government's permission or he would be arrested again.

In late March 2005, the Dak Lak police arrested a Montagnard pastor and six relatives of another pastor. Two of those arrested were subsequently released, but only after one of them had been forced to declare that he had worked as a pastor without government approval, while there has been no news of the other five.

On 26 April 2005, the police in the Ia Grai district of Gia Lai Province summoned three villagers, ordering them to report to the local municipal buildings. The police officers interrogated them, accused them of 'heading the separation of the believers' and ordered them to renounce their beliefs.

In April 2005, a Montagnard from the Cu Se district of Gia Lai Province was arrested and detained at the district police station, where he was beaten, forced to drink alcohol, ordered to stop believing in Jesus and beaten unconscious.

On 25 February 2005, two police officers from Ia To commune in the Ia Grai District summoned two men and a woman for interrogation. The two men were beaten until one of them lost consciousness. They were threatened with arrest if they continued to practise their religion.

In view of the above, could the Commission indicate:

whether it is aware of the events referred to above, and if so what action it has taken;
whether, in the light of these continuing violations of human rights, it intends to denounce the cooperation agreements signed with Vietnam?

E-1937/05EN Answer given by Mrs Ferrero-Waldner on behalf of the Commission

The Commission has been following with great concern the case of the Montagnard Christians in the Vietnam Highlands, and is aware of the report published by Human Rights Watch on 12 May 2005.

The situation in the Central Highlands has been raised on several occasions with Vietnamese authorities, both at the level of Headquarters, and through European Union (EU) missions in Hanoi. Moreover, the EU has recently requested additional information about recent cases of convictions of Montagnards charged with inciting riots or organising the flight of Montagnards to Cambodia.

On a more general level, the EU consistently presses the government for increased transparency in relation to human rights issues. In this respect, the EU has called for unrestricted access by independent monitoring missions by United Nations (UN) human rights rapporteurs, notably the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, as well as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)and reputable human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to the country in general, and the Central Highlands in particular.

The Commission is also paying close attention to new legislation related to religious freedom, such as the Ordinance on Belief and Religion, which was adopted by the National Assembly in June 2004, the prime-ministerial instruction on Protestantism, issued in February 2005, as well as the implementing decree for the 2004 Ordinance, promulgated in early March 2005. While we see some positive new elements in these legal documents, including provisions which would allow the eventual “legalisation” of religious groups which thus far have not been officially recognised by the Vietnamese government, as well as an express prohibition of forced renunciations of faith, much will depend on how these are translated into practice across the country.

The EU will therefore continue to monitor the implementation of the new legislation carefully and has already asked Vietnam to provide further information on its implementation across the country, especially in minority areas. The registration and eventual recognition of new groups and congregations, and the unhindered operation of house churches will be of particular interest.

The Commission agrees that the allegations made in the report by Human Rights Watch are serious and deserve the full attention of the EU. However, the Commission is of the opinion that they do not justify suspending the Vietnam Co-operation agreement which would put on hold the political dialogue, through which these and other issues can be discussed, and interrupt Community development programmes to the detriment of the poor people, including ethnic minorities, in Vietnam.

The Commission and the Member States will continue to follow the situation in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and of the Montagnard minorities there attentively. Related concerns are regularly raised in EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue meetings in Hanoi. Both the Commission and Member States will also continue their development aid activities in the Central Highlands, which aim to improve the living conditions and promote the socio-economic development of the ethnic minorities in the region.

The Commission will also continue to monitor developments on the issue of refugees – in particular the implementation of the tripartite agreement between UNHCR, Vietnam and Cambodia in Vietnam, which included a Vietnamese commitment not to punish or otherwise harass returnees - very closely.