The Council of the European Union approved an EU-Vietnam free trade agreement (the 'Agreement') in late March, despite concerns from human rights activists. Pending approval from the Vietnamese National Assembly, trade between the EU and Vietnam will soon be tariff-free.
When the Agreement - passed by the European Parliament in mid-February - enters into force, 65 per cent of EU exports to Vietnam and 71 per cent of Vietnamese exports to the EU will be duty free. After seven to ten years, the remaining products - bar a few exceptions - will be liberalised.
Tom Platts, a partner at Stephenson Harwood who's based in Southeast Asia, says the Vietnamese National Assembly was set to pass the Agreement around mid to late-May, although this might now be delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
'The Agreement is thus built on future promises to adhere to key human rights standards, rather than a concrete record of compliance
European Regional Forum Liaison Officer of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee
Platts observes that over the past 18 months to two years, Vietnam had become 'one of the hottest investment destinations for overseas investors'.
On the day of the Council's approval, EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan wrote on Twitter that the Agreement is the 'most ambitious [free trade agreement] ever signed with an emerging economy'.
But human rights activists worry about the Agreement.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, says some EU Member States have prioritised economic interests over human rights. They also failed to insist on Vietnam signing key International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, he says.
In an open letter to the EU Parliament, human rights organisations slammed Vietnam's alleged harassment of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and others. They also urged the EU Parliament to call for the creation of an independent monitoring and complaints mechanism for the Agreement, and for Vietnam's ratification of ILO Convention 87 by next year. Convention 87 gives the right to create trade unions.
Under the Trade and Sustainable Development chapter of the Agreement, each party commits to consider the ratification of 'relevant conventions'.
The Agreement's general dispute settlement does not apply to the chapter, and disagreements have to be settled with a panel of experts that issues recommendations.
Robertson believes the provisions are too broad to be effective. 'The Vietnam government is already working on ways to subvert any sort of movement towards trade union pluralism, which is the key reform that would give workers some real say in how they are treated, and the wages and working conditions they face,' he says.
Melinda Taylor, European Regional Forum Liaison Officer of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and an international human rights counsel, echoes similar sentiments. She says that while trade agreements could incentivise reform and compliance with human rights, this isn't always the case. The context in which they are negotiated, she says, can help illustrate how much an agreement is geared towards profit or human rights.
Vietnam had leveraged competition with other countries - such as China - to 'secure key exemptions and dilute important human rights safeguards', she says.
'The Agreement is thus built on future promises to adhere to key human rights standards, rather than a concrete record of compliance', says Taylor. 'There are, moreover, no clear provisions as concerns the timeline for such actions, and the potential consequences of non-compliance. The conclusion of the Agreement reduces the scope for using trade to obtain leverage in areas of concern, and the Agreement itself, as it stands, is likely to green-light future human rights violations.'
Assessing the situation differently, Konrad Hull, a partner at Vietnam-based VNA Legal, says the labour law in Vietnam is quite protective of employees. 'Rules are pretty strong here,' Hull believes. 'Their occupational health and safety standards are quite high. They're not always implemented and enforced, but the actual laws are in place, and they're quite in favour of employees, sometimes to the detriment of investment.'
Yet, Hull acknowledged that the implementation of labour laws might be more lax outside the main cities, and stricter for foreign firms than for local companies.
Kinga Malinowska, Press Officer for trade at the European Commission, rejected the human rights organisations criticism. 'The EU's main approach for improving the human rights situation is a positive engagement with the partner country,' she told Global Insight by email. 'Improving the respect of human rights was a guiding principle during the negotiations for the Agreement. The Agreement will provide an additional platform to engage with Vietnam, and improving the respect of human rights will be a priority during the implementation of the Agreement.'
Malinowska adds that civil society representatives will be able to voice their concerns through the domestic advisory groups that can submit views or recommendations.
These promises ring hollow for Vietnamese human rights activist Vu Quoc Ngu, who has been living in the United States since 2019.
'The EU should use this as an economic leverage to demand Vietnam to improve its human rights records,' he says, 'but unfortunately the EU approved [the Agreement] without doing anything... Vietnam only wants economic stability from the EU, but not to improve its human rights.'
The EU is Vietnam's second largest export market, according to EU statistics.
Vu Quoc, who is Director of non-governmental organisation Defend the Defenders and Editor-in-Chief of its website, says that while some human rights aspects have improved - some progress has been made in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender rights - the general situation has deteriorated over the past years. For example, many political activists have been arrested, he says. He fears he will not be an exception. 'I cannot go back to Vietnam, because it's dangerous for me,' he says.
And the future looks bleak, he says. With the Agreement now certain, he expects more repressive measures. 'Because [the government] wants to keep the regime amid growing societal discontent, and more and more people know about democracy and human rights and are willing to stand up, I think more crackdowns are coming,' he believes.