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Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Visit to Viet Nam, 18 - 29 November, 2013 Preliminary conclusions and recommendations

Hanoi, 29 November 2013.

Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to share with you my preliminary observations at the end of my 12-day official visit as the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

Let me begin by warmly thanking the Government of Viet Nam for inviting me and for their extensive work in facilitating a comprehensive and interesting programme of work.

I wish to stress how important this invitation is. Ensuring the enjoyment of cultural rights by all is a complex issue and not an easy task to accomplish. This was demonstrated by various topics I have addressed during my visit: the right to enjoy the arts and to freedom of artistic expression and creativity, the right of people to manifest their cultural identity and to access and enjoy their own cultural heritage as well as that of others, history teaching in schools, and the impact of tourism on the enjoyment of cultural rights.

During my stay in Viet Nam, I visited Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Sa Pa, as well as a few villages in the Da Nang, Quang Nam and Lao Cai Provinces. I had the opportunity to hold meetings with numerous Government officials at the national and local levels, responsible in the areas of culture and tourism, education, information and communication, ethnic minorities, as well as various officials of People’s committees, the Central Commission for Propaganda and Education of the Party’s Central Committee, representatives of the National Assembly and Unions. I also met with artists, academics, directors and staff working in research institutes or cultural institutions, representatives of civil society, members of ethnic communities, people involved in the tourism industry and UN agencies. I would like to thank them all for their time, warm hospitality, and, above all, the wealth of information they shared with me.

I wish to clarify that I am an independent expert who reports to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council, to which Viet Nam was elected this month. Although appointed by the Human Rights Council, I am not employed by the United Nations and the position I hold is honorary.

My independent status is crucial and enables me to fulfil my functions impartially.

Today, I will confine myself to a few preliminary remarks and considerations. I will develop my assessment in a written report, in which I will also formulate recommendations. I will present this report at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2014 in Geneva.
Ladies and gentlemen,

At present, Viet Nam finds itself at an important juncture. Enormous progress has been achieved in the area of economic development, the reduction of poverty including in remote and rural areas, and the efforts towards the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals have been impressive. I can testify that in the rural villages I visited, roads had been or were being built, schools established, and housing facilitated or repaired.

I believe that such programmes would have been even more efficient had the participation of local communities and the use of their knowledge, including their traditional knowledge, been ensured. Rigidity in programming and implementation and top-down approaches negatively impact effectiveness. For example, in villages regularly flooded by water, traditional houses are more appropriate than those promoted under governmental schemes. I appreciate that traditional architecture has been promoted in building communal houses in the Central Highlands. However, I encourage the Government, when extending support for housing, to offer people real choices regarding the architecture, whether traditional or modern, they want for their own individual houses. More generally, I encourage the Government to ensure greater flexibility in policies and meaningful consultations with concerned communities when developing programmes. A practice needs to be developed whereby people have the space to contribute to the design of programmes that significantly impact their way of life.

I believe that the Government, as well as multiple actors in the Vietnamese society, have taken note of possible detrimental impacts of development programmes on the people’s cultural rights, in particular the rights of ethnic minorities. The Government should significantly increase its efforts to map and to mitigate such negative effects so that the country can fully benefit from the strength of the varied cultures of its peoples to promote sustainable development.

This is particularly relevant with respect to tourism. By using culture as a resource for development, Viet Nam attracts a steadily rising number of international visitors as well as internal tourists. Multiple programmes have been developed to help people of ethnic communities to sell their crafts and access the markets, as well as to showcase their traditional cultures through various festivals and performances. This has allowed communities to participate in the economic development of their region, and has also enabled the Government to promote a more multi-cultural image of the country.

Many challenges remain, however. As you know, I visited Sa Pa and its surrounding villages. And there, I could note that, although tourism has provided a supplementary source of livelihood to local people, unfortunately they are not the primary beneficiaries of the revenue generated. Measures are needed to ensure that the people whose cultural heritage is being used to promote tourism are empowered to manage these activities to their best advantage.

In addition, I am particularly, concerned by situations where people are asked to perform rather than live their own cultures, either to retain artificially specific aspects of their culture to satisfy the tourists’ demands, or, conversely, to modify certain aspects of their culture to satisfy those demands such as modifications of food or accommodation patterns, or the foreshortening of customs or having tickets for participation. I am talking for example of the Khmer’s traditional sport of Bay Nui bull race, in some provinces of Southern Vietnam.

Another example relates to the Cong drum, which is played by many communities in the central highlands and is included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. The Cong is considered as a sacred and precious musical instrument, to be used only on very specific occasions. However, today it is also being played on demand for tourists in some places, thus clearly losing its original cultural significance. I strongly believe that in all such cases, the concerned communities must be consulted on whether, how, when and where to perform and share aspects of their cultural heritage.

Of course, it is not possible, or desirable, to prevent the evolution of cultural practices that inevitably occurs when groups interact with each other. This can also be quite positive. However, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that tourism does not lead to the mere folklorization of its peoples’ cultures, meaning reducing people to certain manifestations of their culture and not acknowledging their humanity.

It is therefore particularly important to enable communities to freely develop their cultures, including outside of touristic areas. The Government should not only support cultural performances and crafts for tourists, but also develop programmes in cooperation with the concerned communities including for continuing cultural practices should this be their wish.

I am also concerned by cases of local or minority communities whose ways of life and culture have been completely disrupted by development programmes. For instance, I was informed that the people of the Con Dau Parish near Da Nang underwent, and are still undergoing, forced evictions from the land they had traditionally tilled to make way for the development of a mega private housing scheme. I hope the Government will intervene in a timely manner to resolve this particular case. More generally, I encourage the Government to ensure that the collective ownership of land is recognized for communities wishing to retain and develop their traditional ways of life, most often based on agriculture, forest husbandry or fishing.

Another issue I have discussed at length with governmental officials relates to the definition of what constitutes bad practices or customs as well as “superstition”. My understanding is that such terms need to be clarified as practices contradicting human rights or undermining human dignity. I also encourage the authorities to identify such practices through discussions with the concerned communities.

I would like to welcome positive initiatives put in place by the Government. These include the work of the Institute of Linguistic to document and preserve ethnic languages and develop scripts, as well as the pilot research project conducted with UNICEF to promote bilingual education for the Hmong, J’rai and Khmer, three of the largest minority groups, at the pre-school and primary school levels. As research demonstrates, students benefiting from such programmes have done very well. I strongly encourage the Government to support the bilingual education project and extend this to other groups, regions and grades. At the same time, some of my interlocutors expressed concern regarding the script that is being used for some groups. Here, again, a positive way forward to address such concerns is to include in the decision-making process researchers and academics belonging to these communities.

Ladies and gentlemen,

One of the key issues for Viet Nam today is the space available for debate and the expression of a plurality of voices. One striking example of this, which is of concern to me, relates to history teaching, as only one history textbook is in use in schools. As stated in my thematic report on the writing and teaching of history submitted this year the General Assembly (A/68/296), history teaching should promote critical thought, analytic learning and debate, enabling a comparative and multi-perspective approach rather than moulding children into a unidimensional perspective. This entails in particular the use of a wide array of teaching materials, including textbooks from a range of publishers. I encourage relevant actors in Viet Nam to look at my report.

I am encouraged that the Government and civil society are currently trying to re-define the contours of the space available for a diversity of voices to be articulated. I strongly encourage the Government to widen that space, in accordance with its own constitution and international standards. The political and governmental structure in Viet Nam, together with various Unions, which act mainly as vehicles for transmitting the government’s decisions, currently leaves little space for civil society to express itself, in particular when it comes to academics, artists and others who may be critical of the Government’s policies.

It is time for Viet Nam to ensure greater freedom of artistic expression as well as academic freedoms, and to allow a multi voice narrative to find its place. The absence of private publishing houses greatly reduces the scope for independent voices to be heard. The constitution provides for fundamental rights but it is often very difficult to enjoy these due to multiple regulations and the lack of clearly defined specifications of what is acceptable or not acceptable. It is unfortunate that judicial processes have not helped to clarify the parameters of specific laws.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Artists may entertain people, but they also contribute to social debates, sometimes bringing counter-discourses. While I am happy to note that a number of interlocutors stated they had noticed an increased space for self-expression, I am deeply concerned that a number of artists have been under surveillance, harassed, or detained. In my discussions with the authorities for example, I have raised the case of some artists who have been convicted under article 88 of the Criminal Code for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam”. I would like to emphasize that artistic expressions are an integral part of cultural life and are at the heart of vibrant cultures and the functioning of democratic societies. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the Government will review its policy to ensure greater freedom of artistic expression and creativity, in accordance with international standards.

I am extremely grateful to the Government of Viet Nam for inviting me to visit, enabling me to deepen my understanding of these very sensitive but important issues. The Government’s invitation confirms how seriously it is taking issues relating to the enjoyment of cultural rights. I know how difficult this is, in particular when the challenge is for the Government to ensure that the “unity” it promotes is based on the diverse opinions, expressions and cultures of the people.

See full statement in VietNamese