Saturday, July 20, 2013

Abusing Laws

At 8 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2013, 69 Vietnamese bloggers and facebookers (referred to as “bloggers”) released a statement, calling the government to “amend law todemonstrate Human Rights Council candidacy commitment.

This is the first collective action by political bloggers in Vietnam who voice their opinions about Vietnam’s running for its membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2014-2016 tenure and, during the process, ignoring the role of its people.

Much experience in abusing laws

If they were able to openly express their opinions in an organized and straightforward way, the signers must have said that the Vietnamese State must stop abusing laws for the sake of “management”, which actually aims to benefit the State at the expense of the people.

“To facilitate public management” is a deep-rooted mindset accounting for the fact that Vietnamese Government has used its system of laws, regulations and fiats at its discretion and out of its interest for dozens of years since the making of the nation in 1945.

In the two recent years alone, Vietnam has seen many repressive laws manifested in a series of irrelevant, government-oriented policies: an Internet-controlling decree preventing Internet users from “violating fine customs and traditions” (but what is a fine custom and/or tradition?); a circular on the application of a new ID card form requiring the bearer to submit their parents’ names (what if I were an illegitimate child wanting to protect his privacy?); a decree on fining any citizen who fails to prove the ownership of their vehicle (does it mean I shall have to bring loads of documents with me whenever I go out?); and dozens of discretionary decisions by the Ministry of Finance to increase fuel prices despite skyrocketing inflation.

A crucial code of any legal system, the Penal Code, includes a range of repressive provisions. Article 79, “Carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration”, is nothing more than the suppression of the right to association and political participation. Article 88, “Conducting propaganda against the State”, and Article 258, “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”, inhibit freedom of speech in banning people to express any idea against the government or anything the government dislikes.

A common feature of dictatorships

It must be said that the Vietnamese Government is not alone in using laws for its benefits, even to seek rents literally (or “to create favorable conditions for management activities” in its euphemistic words) although that may mean “to put people at a disadvantage.”

Using legislations as a tool of repression is likely a common feature of all dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. The Soviet Union, for example, legalized repression of political opposition with Article 58 of the 1927 Russian SFSR Penal Code, according to which any suspect of counter revolutionary activities and enemy of workers is subject to detention. 85 years later, the Russian authorities issued a notorious legal policy targeting non-government organizations, including international ones such as Amnesty International, Human Right Watch, and Transparency International. Hundreds of NGOs were audited and raided, their documents confiscated. Russian “foreign agent” law is criticized for violating human rights and undermining civil society organizations.

Power always becomes corrupt if it goes without a check-and-balance system. Every state tends to abuse laws; the more dictatorial it is, the more abusive of laws it becomes.

In Vietnam, until recently, many people, including those favor liberal democracy, keep opining that “no matter what you do, you must first and foremost obey the law.” Although their opinions seem right, those people fail to answer one question, “So what if the state deliberately uses law as a tool to violate citizens’ rights? Would we obey those laws still?”

Without judicial review, an independent judiciary system or a truly representative legislature, what can the Vietnamese do to protect their freedom rights against their repressive state? This leads to a popular slip, “Then what can we do? Law is in their hands; law is theirs.”

While the Vietnamese government is still free from any pressure to conduct judicial review, especially to revise such important law as the Penal Code, an effort to urge it to abrogate unconstitutional provisions, including Article 258, can be deemed as one of the first steps.

Law, in its true sense, is created to protect the people’s liberty, not to protect the State’s interest.