September 29, 2023

Vietnam: Drop Charges Against Climate Activist

End Arrests of Climate Activists and Commit to a Just Energy Transition

The Vietnamese government should release Ngo Thi To Nhien, a climate activist and executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, Climate Rights International said today. The grounds for Ngo’s September 15 arrest are unclear, but activists expect her to be charged with tax evasion.

Ngo Thi To Nhien’s arrest is part of a pattern of targeting climate activists, Climate Rights International said. Five other climate activists have been imprisoned on tax evasion charges in the last two years, as the government has expanded its practice of charging and imprisoning activists and critics on politically motivated grounds to include climate change campaigners.

“In the midst of the climate crisis, the Vietnamese government should be working with climate activists, not arresting and imprisoning them,” said Brad Adams, Executive Director at Climate Rights International. “The authorities should be amplifying Ngo Thi To Nhien’s concerns about climate change, not muzzling her with politically motivated charges.”

Ngo Thi To Nhien has played a pivotal role in developing renewable energy for Vietnam. Her think-tank was the first in the country to specialize in energy transition policy and climate protection. Notably, she had less of a public profile than the other five individuals arrested and is known more for her expertise than for her activism.

In another politically motivated prosecution, on September 28 climate activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong was sentenced to three years in prison on arbitrary charges of tax evasion after a trial that lasted just three hours. Hoang’s arrest on June 1, 2023, drew worldwide attention because of her reputation as a leading voice in the environmental movement in Vietnam and her position as an inaugural Obama Foundation scholar. Climate Rights International co-signed an open letter shortly following her arrest, calling on Obama to publicly demand her release. Obama has yet to make a public statement.

Other climate activists currently in prison include Bach Hung Duong and Dang Dinh Bach. Dang Dinh Bach has said he has been assaulted in prison and threatened by individuals brandishing knives. Earlier in 2023, two other climate activists, Nguy Thi Khanh and Mai Phan Loi, were released from prison by the Vietnamese government. No official reason for their releases was given.

“The conviction yesterday of Hoang Thi Minh Hong is a shocking reminder that Vietnam is a one-party dictatorship that imprisons even people who have spent many years working to protect one of the world’s most vulnerable countries from climate change,” said Adams. “Yet their reward is a prison cell.”

The arrests of climate activists stand in stark contrast to the international support Vietnam is receiving from the landmark Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), which offers funds from donor countries to help convert high carbon energy grids to greener alternatives. On December 14, 2022, Vietnam agreed to a JETP arrangement that would result in Vietnam securing $15 billion worth of funding through 2030 to help the country become carbon neutral by 2050. One of the main objectives of the partnership is to help Vietnam transition from coal to renewable energy.

To make JETP work, the Vietnamese government must respect freedom of expression and establish safeguards for civil society groups to engage in fact-finding and critiques of government and international policies. Only through this commitment can Vietnam continue on a path towards a just and sustainable energy transition that lives up to its aspirations and responsibilities in the global fight against climate change.

In 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that Vietnam was on the front line against climate catastrophe, noting its vulnerability from “rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, flooding, and changing rainfall intensity.” The United States Agency for International Development has identified Vietnam as one of the five countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Ironically, all of the imprisoned climate activists support Vietnam’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050. Some were even involved in supporting the Just Energy Transition Partnership deal for Vietnam. Yet, on his recent visit to Vietnam, President Biden did not publicly call for their release, instead prioritizing a strategic partnership agreement with Vietnam as part of his government’s China containment policy.

“The transition to renewable energy cannot come at the cost of leaving human rights in the dark ages,” said Adams. “To make Vietnam’s Just Energy Transition Partnership meaningful, it must be ‘just’ for the people of Vietnam, including respecting the right to comment on or criticize the government’s climate policies and practices. President Biden and President Obama should call for the unconditional release of all peaceful activists and an end to arbitrary prosecutions as part of a Just Transition in Vietnam.”

Photo Credit: Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Markus Winkler via Unsplash (CC0).

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