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Statement by the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Ms. Gay McDougall, on conclusion of her official visit to Viet Nam – 5 to 15 July 2010

   21 July 2010

In my capacity as the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues I have conducted an official visit to Viet Nam from 5 to 15 July 2010. The objective of my visit was to hold consultations on minority issues and to examine the human rights situation of Viet Nam’s numerous minority groups in conformity with my UN mandate. Under my mandate I am required to promote implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities* and to identify challenges as well as successful practices in regard to minority issues.

This is the tenth such country visit that I have conducted and I have visited nearly every region of the world in pursuit of my mandate. My visits offer me a unique opportunity to witness firsthand the situation of minorities and to consult with a wide range of stakeholders, including minorities themselves.

I would first like to thank the Government of Viet Nam for extending an invitation to me and for the high level of importance that they attached to my visit.  I greatly appreciate the assistance provided to me in the preparation and conduct of my visit. I have been provided extensive access to senior government officials at both national and provincial levels. I would like thank the officials whom I met for their time and information and consider the Government’s welcome to me to be a testament to its commitment to progress in the area of minority rights. 

The comments made in this statement, issued on the conclusion of my visit to Viet Nam, are of a preliminary nature. I will present a report containing my full findings and recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2011. 

I began my visit in Hanoi before travelling to regions of significant minority populations, including the provinces of Dien Bien in the Northern Highlands, Tra Vinh in the Mekong Delta region and Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces in the Central Highlands. I met with senior Government officials, representatives of non-governmental organizations, community members, academics, and others working in the field of minority issues, social inclusion and promotion of equality and non-discrimination.

Viet Nam is a country of great diversity, with 54 recognized distinct ethnic groups with unique religious, linguistic and cultural characteristics and identities. Viet Nam recognizes its minority populations as important constituent parts of its nation and understands many of the challenges that it faces to ensure that the rights of minorities are respected, protected and promoted in every sphere of life. The establishment of dedicated Governmental bodies with responsibilities for minorities, including the Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs, is a positive practice that is replicated on provincial and district levels.

The Government readily acknowledges that, despite a remarkable period of economic growth, progress towards the MDGs and highly positive results in respect to poverty alleviation and economic development in general, most minority groups remain the poorest of Viet Nam’s poor. The acknowledgment of the economic and social gaps that exist between the minority communities and the majority population, who identify themselves as the “Kinh” ethnic group, is an important step towards putting in place the measures required to close those gaps. Government programs over the past several years have established important initiatives to close those gaps through infrastructure projects, social protection programs and developments in the fields of health and education. The government should be commended for these programs and the improvements that they have made in the lives of minorities.

I understand the challenges facing the government in achieving the rights of non-Kinh ethnic communities, particularly those in the most geographically remote areas.  I welcome the government’s affirmation of its commitment to tackling those challenges as a matter of high priority. It is critical that the Government ensures that its economic growth is achieved without negatively impacting on the lives of minorities or deepening their poverty and that they share fully in the benefits of growth and prosperity, while maintaining their distinct cultures and identities.

Access to quality and appropriate education is a gateway to development and poverty eradication for minorities. It is equally essential for the preservation and promotion of minority cultures, languages and identities. Education helps minorities to take control of their lives and to fulfill their potential as equal stakeholders in the development of the State.

In Viet Nam, despite significant progress in the provision of school structures to most Communes, the option of boarding schools for students from remote villages and access to secondary schools for minority children, I am concerned that minorities are achieving poor results in education relative to Kinh students. One of the problems that has been identified is that minorities lack adequate opportunities to be taught in their own minority languages from the earliest years of education and struggle with being taught only in Vietnamese.

With the ultimate goal of fluency in Vietnamese, bi-lingual education helps minority children to make better early progress in education and provides a strong and culturally appropriate foundation for their future schooling. I look forward to the results of a pilot programme of Mother-Tongue based bilingual education currently being implemented by the Ministry of Education and Training and UNICEF, including in the provinces of Gia Lai and Tra Vinh that I visited. Studies done world-wide endorse this approach. It is not sufficient that the Mother-Tongue language is taught as a subject.  In pre-school, and the first 3 years it should be the language of instruction, which then transitions to be Vietnamese. 

As in many countries with such diversity, numerous challenges exist to ensuring that members of minority groups can fully realize all their economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights and live in conditions of equality. The rights of minorities include freedom to practice their religions without restriction, freedom of association and expression, the right of peaceful assembly, the equal right to own and use land and the right to participate fully and effectively in decision-making regarding issues that affect them, including with respect to economic development projects and re-settlement issues. Concerns relating to these rights have been raised with me in the context of my visit and, in turn, I have raised these issues directly with the Government of Viet Nam at national and provincial levels. I will study closely the information that I have gathered and the responses of the Government to my questions before commenting on these issues in my final report.

Finally I would like to say that, I believe that my visit marks an important step by the Government of Viet Nam to engage with the human rights bodies and mechanisms of the United Nations system. I welcome the Government’s undertaking to extend further invitations to other UN human rights experts in the months ahead and I hope that these will include invitations to a wide range of mandate holders, including those with mandates in the area of civil and political rights. 

I look forward to a continuing and constructive dialogue with the Government of Viet Nam and I stand ready to support the positive initiatives of the government with respect to minority rights.

Thank you.