Viet Nam

Last Updated 9 September 2021

The Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV) is the sole political party within the country. Under the CPV, there has been a history of systematic denial, in practice, of rights to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly.1

According to the 2019 national census,2 86% of the population are non-religious. However, the US State Department reports that “many religious adherents choose not to make their religious affiliation public for fear of adverse consequences, resulting in substantial discrepancies among various estimates.”3

Based on the available data, Roman Catholics represent the largest religious group, accounting for 6.1% of the population, with Buddhists accounting for 4.%, and Protestants 1%. Smaller populations of religious groups such as Hindus (mostly ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area), Muslims scattered throughout the country (approximately 40% are Sunnis; the remaining 60% practice Bani Islam), Baha’is, Mormons, and other groups following syncretic religions established in Viet Nam – such as Cao Đài, Đạo Tứ n Hiếu nghĩa, and Hòa Hảo Buddhists – make up the remainder of the religious demography.4 Viet Nam has recognized and granted permits to 37 religious associations and sects.5

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Constitution and government

Key articles from the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam6 provide the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief, in theory.

Article 24:

“1. Every one shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion; he can follow any religion or follow none. All religions are equal before the law
2. The State respects and protects freedom of belief and of religion.
3. No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of belief and religion or to take advantage of belief and religion to violate the laws.”

Whilst Article 25 provides protection for the rights to free expression, assembly and association:

“The citizen shall enjoy the right to freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, to access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations. The practice of these rights shall be provided by the law.”

Article 40 protects cultural rights (i.e. those rights articulated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights):

“Every one has the right to carry out scientific and industrial research, engage in literary and artistic creation, and enjoy benefits from those activities.”

Despite these Constitutional protections, restrictions exist in policy and practice, however. For instance, when read together, Articles 14 and 15 indicate that citizens’ human rights may be restricted when they impinge on “national interests,” such as “national defence, national security, social order and security, social morality, and the health of the community.” Article 44 emphasizes this point:

“The citizen must show loyalty to his Fatherland. To betray one’s Fatherland is the most serious crime.”

Emphasis on the country’s policy of national unity and harmony often conflicts with the exercise of individuals’ rights. In practice, those who are perceived to “betray” Viet Nam – such as writers, journalists, human rights defenders, members of religious groups, among others – face heavy sanctions that fall both within and outside of the law (for more information, see ‘Freedom of Expression’ section below).

The government has a Committee on Religious Affairs, which “advises and assists the Minister of the Interior in governmental management in the field of beliefs and religions and in organizing the implementation of policies and laws on beliefs and religions nationwide; performs public services in the field of beliefs and religions according to the provisions of law.”7;

Regulation of religious groups

While the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam publicly presents itself as welcoming and supportive of the rights of the religious and non-religious,8;; these claims do not stand up to close scrutiny.

According to Human Rights Watch,9

“The Vietnamese authorities ban religious activities that they arbitrarily deem to be contrary to “national interest,” “public order,” or “national unity.” Followers of unapproved religious groups are criticized, forced to renounce their faith, detained, interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned. In August, a court in Gia Lai province sentenced Rah Lan Hip to seven years in prison for his affiliation with Dega Protestantism.”

Further, according to the World Report 2021,10

“Police monitor, harass, and sometimes violently crack down on religious groups operating outside government-controlled institutions. Unrecognized religious groups, including Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Christian, and Buddhist groups, face constant surveillance, harassment, and intimidation. Followers of independent religious group are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment.”

In 2018, the Law on Belief and Religion11;; (Decree No. 162/2017/ND-CP) entered into force. The law was introduced in order to address inadequacies of previous laws to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief as enshrined in the Constitution. Certain provisions contained within it are deemed to represent progress in this regard; namely the recognition of registered religious groups as legal entities, as well as the recognition of “detainees’ rights to use holy books and to express their religious faith (Article 6), reducing the waiting period for religious groups to apply for recognition from 23 years to five years (Article 21), and the rights of religious organizations to participate in education, vocational training, healthcare, and social services under the relevant regulations (Article 55).”12

Whilst the law specifies that recognized religious organizations and their affiliates are noncommercial legal entities, and that they are allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with relevant laws, it fails to provide clarity around which specific activities are permissible.13

The law states that “individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; proselytize in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder; infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor or property of others; impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct “superstitious activities” or otherwise violate the law.”14

As such, in practice the law contains many of the same restrictions criticized by international rights groups, including the requirement of registration of religious organizations and the obtention of permission for religious practices, among others.15 Certain religious activities do not need advance approval but instead require notification to the appropriate authorities. These include, but are not limited to: recurring or periodic “belief festivals;” conducting fundraising activities; the repair or renovation of religious facilities not considered cultural-historical relics; ordination, appointment, assignment, or dismissal of religious clergy (such as monks); routine religious activities (defined as “religious preaching, practicing religious tenets and rites, and management of a religious organization”); and internal conferences of a religious organization.16

The government does not allow unauthorized organizations to raise funds or distribute aid without seeking approval and registration from authorities. However, unregistered organizations may operate to some extent.17

Under Article 40 of the Criminal Code, the death penalty is permissible for “extremely serious crimes that infringe national security, human life, drug-related crimes, corruption-related crimes, and some other extremely serious crimes defined by this Code.”18

The Criminal Code (as revised in 2015),19; establishes penalties for vaguely defined offenses such as sowing “division between religious believers and nonbelievers” (Article 116(d), Chapter XIII ‘Offences against National Security’). The government continues to limit the organized activities of independent religious groups and of individuals who are regarded as a threat to Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) authority.

Additionally, Article 331 of the Criminal Code criminalizes “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens,” stating:

“1. Any person who abuses the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens shall receive a warning or face a penalty of up to 03 years’ community sentence or 06 – 36 months’ imprisonment.

2. If the offence has a negative impact on social security, order, or safety, the offender shall face a penalty of 02 – 07 years’ imprisonment.”

Education and children’s rights

The government does not permit religious instruction in public or private schools; but nor is atheism taught officially. There are some private schools run by religious organizations.20;

In 2020, the Institute for Global Engagement together with the Vietnam-USA Society at the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations and the faculty of Viet Nam National University (VNU) Law School published a first of its kind text book on “religious freedom” for use at the VNU.21

Sex education

According to Human Rights Watch, “Vietnam’s sex education policies and practices fall short of international standards and do not include discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.“22

Violent discipline

Children in Vietnam are often subjected to “violent discipline” at the hands of teachers and parents.23 According to Human Rights Watch, “[v]iolence against children, including sexual abuse, is pervasive in Vietnam. Cases of serious violence occur in homes, at schools, and in public spaces across the country and are often reported frequently on state media.”24

Family, community and society

According to Freedom House, “[m]embers of ethnic and religious minorities also sometimes face monitoring and harassment by authorities seeking to suppress dissent and suspected links to exile groups.”25 This may be partially explained by the government’s concern for national security and the foreign origins of certain belief minorities in the country.26;

This point is supported by comments made by the US State Department in its 2020 Report on International “Religious Freedom,”27

“Most representatives of religious groups continued to report anecdotally that adherence to a registered religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental, civil, economic, and secular life, but that adherence to an unregistered group was more disadvantageous. Religious leaders said that actual religious belief was not a cause of official discrimination, but rather it was the implication of being affiliated with any type of extralegal group that could attract additional scrutiny from authorities.”

Members of unregistered belief groups face increased scrutiny. According to the US State Department, “[b]ecause religion, ethnicity, and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of harassment as being solely based on religious identity.”28;

The State Department reports that incidents of violence between members of unregistered and registered or recognized religious groups or between religious adherents and nonbelievers took place in 2020, in part due to alleged manipulation on the part of the authorities.

Individuals who converted to another faith outside of their family reportedly faced ostracism and societal stigma for their conversions.

LGBTI+ rights

According to Human Rights Watch, children are taught from a young age that same-sex attraction is a diagnosable mental health condition that can be treated. LGBTI+ youth face bullying and exclusion at school, including verbal harassment and threats of violence.29

Although the government repealed legislation banning same-sex marriage in 2015, it has yet to grant such unions with legal recognition.30

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

According to Amnesty International, in 2020 “[p]ro-democracy activists, independent journalists, authors and publishers faced sustained harassment, physical assault, arbitrary prosecution and torture and other ill-treatment in police custody.”31 Activists are also frequently subjected to surveillance, travel bans and arbitrary detention.32

The government enforced a crackdown on dissent ahead of the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Viet Nam held in January 2021 – a meeting held every five years during which the authorities officials set plans and select the politburo, the party’s leadership, the leader of the national assembly, and the country’s president and prime minister in an opaque and undemocratic manner.33

As a result, numerous bloggers, publishers and government critics were arrested and prosecuted for a range of national security offences, including “conducting propaganda against the State”.34 The Vietnamese authorities also blocked access to politically independent websites and pressured social media companies to take down accounts, posts, or video clips critical of the government.35

Individuals associated with pro-democracy groups are regularly apprehended. In April 2020, the authorities reportedly arrested poet Tran Duc Thach, subsequently charging him with “subversion” in November that year in connection with his alleged involvement with the Brotherhood for Democracy.36 World association of writers, PEN International, documented five cases of writers persecuted for their use of the written word in 2020 in Viet Nam. They include award-winning writer and journalist, Phạm Đoan Trang, who in October 2020 was arrested and charged under Article 117 of the Penal Code with ‘making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ for her defence of human rights. She faces up to 20 years’ imprisonment.37

Crackdown on dissent online

Individuals perceived to write anti-state posts on social media platforms such as Facebook face heavy penalties.38;;;; Government-sponsored “cyber-troops” reportedly targeted government critics with online abuse, harassment, trolling and mass reporting campaigns, often leading to restrictions on the accounts and content of human rights defenders. In addition, human rights defenders faced physical attacks and other forms of offline threats and violence in relation to their online activism.39

In 2019, a new cybersecurity law, which requires service providers and internet companies to take down content that offends the authorities within 24 hours of receiving their request, entered into force.40 ; In April 2020, Facebook reportedly agreed to restrict posts published by dissidents following pressure from the Vietnamese authorities.41

In addition, the government issued a decree that, according to Human Rights Watch, provides “for monetary fines for people and internet companies for posting or publishing a sweeping range of items with “forbidden contents” or materials that promote “reactionary ideas” or “have not been allowed for circulation, or have been prohibited for circulation or have been confiscated” or “distort historical truth, dismiss revolutionary achievement, insult the nation or national famous people and heroes.” Stated in such vague and overbroad terms, the provisions allow the government to penalize people and platforms for any statement at all.”42

Prior censorship

By law, all materials must be submitted to the authorities prior to publication.43

Most religious organizations have their own newspapers, magazines and bulletins like Buddhism Research Magazine, Giac Ngo Newspaper (Buddhism); Hiep Thong Review, Vietnamese Catholic Newspaper, Catholicism and the Nation Newspaper (Catholicism); Huong Sen Review (HoaHao Buddhism); Pastoral Bulletin and Spiritual Communication Bulletin (Protestantism).44

Freedoms of association and assembly

Freedoms of association and assembly are tightly restricted. Organizations must apply for official permission to obtain legal status and are closely regulated and monitored by the government.45 Those participating in protests may face penalties for disrupting public order.

A small but active community of nongovernmental groups promotes environmental conservation, land rights, women’s development, and public health. However, human rights organizations are generally banned, and those who engage in any advocacy that the authorities perceive as hostile risk imprisonment.46;


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