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Leading environmentalists decry crackdown on Vietnam climate activists

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Letter from Goldman prize winners aims to block country’s bid to join UN’s human rights council over its jailing of campaigners.

More than 50 winners of the world’s most prestigious environmental prize are calling on the UN to reject a bid by Vietnam to join the international organization’s human rights council (UNHRC) amid a crackdown on the country’s climate activists.

In a letter sent on Wednesday, 52 past winners of the Goldman prize for environmentalists have urged the UNHRC to vote against the application from Vietnam, where authorities have this year jailed four climate leaders on disputed tax charges.

Among those targeted is the 2018 Goldman laureate Nguy Thi Khanh, a leading clean energy advocate, who was sentenced in June to two years in prison for alleged tax evasion after pressuring the government to phase out coal.

Khanh’s imprisonment came after three other campaigners were jailed on similar charges earlier this year, raising fears that the tax code is being used to silence environmentalists and other civil society leaders. UN advisers, known as special rapporteurs, have condemned Vietnam’s ambiguous tax laws as “incompatible with human rights norms”.

Khanh’s case spotlights the perils faced by activists as global heating caused by burning fossil fuels pushes the planet to the brink of climate breakdown. Hundreds of land defenders and environmentalists are threatened and killed every year, while authorities in Latin America and Asia are among those turning to the criminal justice system to persecute activists through the courts.

“What’s happening in Vietnam is just the tip of the iceberg,” according to the letter signed by Goldman laureates from 41 countries.

“Many Goldman Prize winners have been arrested and jailed by governments around the world. We have all faced uphill battles in our efforts to protect our planet and catalyse change. We urge you to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate not only to Vietnam, but to all countries, that the criteria for obtaining an esteemed membership on the Human Rights Council are taken seriously, and that the international community is watching,” the letter continues.

The UNHRC, which is composed of 47 countries elected to serve three-year terms, has come under fire for including states with dire human rights records. Current members include Venezuela, Mexico, Qatar, China and Honduras, countries where journalists, political opponents, environmentalists and land defenders have been systematically persecuted.

In recent years, Vietnam has been praised as a climate leader in south-east Asia, and it looks set to receive billions of dollars from a coalition of western governments to help fund its clean energy transition – an aid package likely to be announced at the UN climate conference in Egypt (Cop27) in November.

Khanh, 46, has a decade-long track record of working closely with the Vietnamese government to help pioneer strategies to enable the transition away from coal, culminating in a pledge by the prime minister at Cop26 in Glasgow last November to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Despite her close working relationship with the government, Khanh was arrested after pushing leaders to make good on the pledge. She is behind bars along with the environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach, who was sentenced to five years in prison after working to protect marginalized communities from harmful pesticides and pollution from coal-burning power plants.

“Vietnam wants to be recognized as a climate leader globally, while locking up climate leaders at home – it doesn’t make sense,” said Michael Sutton, executive director of the Goldman environmental prize. “I suspect the government doesn’t want to be embarrassed about lagging behind its commitments, so the easiest thing to do is to lock up those pushing them.”

The signatories include celebrated environmentalists from Russia (Svet Zabelin, 1993), the US (Nalleli Cobo, 2022), Ivory Coast (Wadja Egnankou, 1992), Scotland (Howard Wood, 2015), Madagascar (Nat Quansah, 2000) and Cuba (Humberto Ríos Labrada, 2010), among others.

In the letter, the winners argue that the UNHRC should not accept Vietnam until authorities release the environmental defenders and revise the tax code as “[until then] we do not believe that Vietnam meets your criteria of upholding ‘high human rights standards’”.

The UNHRC will consider Vietnam’s bid for membership during its 51st session, which runs until 7 October.

By Nina Lakhani – The Guardian – September 14, 2022

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