May 26, 20235:06 AM ET
Wealthy countries and investors are planning to give Vietnam billions of dollars to help it transition from coal to renewable energy. But the climate deal has come under fire because of Vietnam’s record on human rights.
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Vietnam is set to get billions of dollars from wealthy countries and investors over the next few years to help it move from coal to renewable energy. The goal is to fight climate change while boosting the country’s economic development.
The money — at least $15.5 billion — was promised after climate activists in Vietnam pushed the government to commit to eliminating or offsetting the country’s carbon dioxide emissions by midcentury. The United States and other backers of the funding plan, known as the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), say that kind of advocacy is critical for making sure the benefits of the climate deal are widely shared in Vietnam.
But environmental activists now have little room to operate in the country. Climate advocates whose campaigning paved the way for the JETP have been jailed on what critics say are trumped-up tax charges. Human rights experts say the detentions are part of a crackdown on civil society groups in recent years by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party.
In response to those alleged abuses, civil society groups from around the world are pushing governments and financial institutions that want to wean Vietnam off coal to pressure the country on its human rights practices before they send it any money.
A United Nations working group has called for Vietnam to release one of the jailed climate activists, Dang Dinh Bach, who has said he’ll go on a hunger strike in June to protest his imprisonment. Separately, a coalition of 36 environmental and human rights groups wrote to President Joe Biden and nine other world leaders earlier this month urging them to pressure Vietnam to free activists who have been jailed unjustly. They also want Vietnam’s government to lift restrictions on civil society. The coalition sent similar letters to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the Asian Development Bank, which are expected to help fund the climate deal.
“There will be no ‘just’ transition unless Vietnam’s restrictive policies and ongoing persecution of the country’s leading environmental defenders are addressed and remedied,” the 36 civil society groups wrote in the letters to world leaders, which were shared with NPR. “Human rights and civic space must not be subordinated to climate diplomacy.”
What’s happening in Vietnam highlights a broader challenge of ensuring human rights are upheld as countries try to deal with the problem of climate change. Around the world, there’s growing concern that grassroots efforts to limit global warming are being met with state pushback and human rights abuses.
Those sorts of reprisals could hurt efforts to cut emissions. Experts say that without an active civil society, it’s hard to know how money for climate and development programs is being spent — and whether efforts to cut emissions or help communities adapt to extreme weather and the emergence of new industries are actually working.
“What we have heard from some of the international investors is that with better transparency, that will boost their confidence in investing in certain countries and regions,” says Shuang Liu, who leads the Sustainable Finance Center at the World Resources Institute.
The UN working group found Bach’s detention was arbitrary, and that his treatment is a violation of international law. Another activist, Nguy Thi Khanh, was reportedly released earlier this month, suggesting international funding could be used to win concessions. But critics of Vietnam’s government say it’s too soon to know if the country’s leaders would be willing to change how they treat civil society.
The White House didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. A spokesperson for the EU declined to comment. Canada said it and other governments backing the deal worked with Vietnam “to ensure for regular consultation with civil society.”
Vietnam’s embassy in Washington didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Spokespeople for the International Finance Corporation and the Asian Development Bank say the organizations have policies to prevent human rights abuses at the projects they’re involved in.
The question is how — and when — those policies would be applied. Vietnam’s human rights record is “dire in virtually all areas,” according to Human Rights Watch. And with its jailing of the climate campaigners, the government sent a clear message, says Ben Swanton, who works on human rights issues at The 88 Project: Climate activism is “off limits.”
Chinh Minh Pham, prime minister of Vietnam, speaks at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021.
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Climate activists were already jailed when the deal was struck
Vietnam is one of a handful of countries that have been picked so far to get climate funding through the JETP program. Each country presents its own challenges. In South Africa, which burns coal for most of its electricity, chronic blackouts and thorny domestic politics have reportedly put investors on edge. In Indonesia, observers worry the government’s deal with donors and investors is “empty talk” as the country continues building coal-fired power plants.