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."
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.
Coal looms large in Vietnam, too. New power plants are under construction. But the government's sidelining of civil society groups poses a fundamental challenge to a climate initiative that's aimed at benefiting local communities.
"It is vital that the whole civil society is involved in the green transition at all stages and no one is left behind," the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam said when the program was announced last year by the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy democracies, plus the EU, Denmark and Norway.
But by then, some of Vietnam's leading climate activists — a group known as the Vietnam Four — were already imprisoned. The fact that the deal was signed anyway is "shocking," says Emilie Palamy Pradichit, a human rights lawyer based in Thailand and founder of the Manushya Foundation. She says that it suggests wealthy countries and investors "do not really care much about civil society and climate activists being jailed."
After pushing Vietnam's government to reduce the country's reliance on coal-fired power plants and to set a target for zeroing out emissions, Bach, Mai Phan Loi and Bach Hung Duong were arrested in June 2021 and charged with tax evasion. Khanh, a winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, was detained in early 2022 and also charged with tax evasion.
The 88 Project said in a recent report that the charges appear to have been "arbitrarily applied for the purpose of political persecution."
Each of the activists was prosecuted in closed trials, according to the report, which was cited in the letters sent to countries and financial institutions that are backing Vietnam's JETP. Their prison sentences ranged from about two to five years.
"They were able to challenge the government's monopoly on policy making," Swanton, who authored the report, says of the Vietnam Four. But once that happened, he says there was a "very fierce reaction."
Days after Khanh was sentenced last year, the State Department urged Vietnam to release her and other jailed environmental activists. But Vietnam kept them in detention. Six months later, the U.S. and its partners announced the climate deal with Vietnam.
"The U.S. does call out Vietnam on human rights," says Murray Hiebert, who works in the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But it's verbal, and the U.S. does not punish."
Activists call for sweeping changes in Vietnam
The Biden administration wants a close relationship with Vietnam. It's a fast-growing country in a region where the U.S. and some of its allies are trying to push back on China. Vietnam was invited to attend the G7 meeting as a guest last week in Japan. Japan didn't respond to a message seeking comment on Vietnam's alleged persecution of climate activists.
On the issue of climate change, analysts and environmental advocates say Vietnam needs the funding it's being offered through the JETP. The country's at severe risk from flooding and extreme heat, and the money would help it cut its reliance on coal — the largest energy source of carbon emissions that are fueling global warming. But human rights experts and analysts say that right now, the top concern for the country's ruling Communist Party seems to be maintaining its political power.
"All these communist governments are very worried [about] color revolutions," Hiebert says, referring to uprisings in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
A plan for how the JETP will be carried out is expected to be published by November.
It's unclear how far Vietnam might be willing to go to make sure it gets the money. Activists who signed the letters to the U.S. and other backers of the deal want guarantees that civil society groups will be able to freely participate in designing and monitoring how the JETP is carried out.
Vietnam "needs to allow civil society to prosper," says Pradichit, the human rights lawyer, and to "play its role of watchdog, the check and balance of the government."
A spokesperson for the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which represents private investors that are expected to raise half the money for JETP, said "regular consultation will be required with NGOs and other stakeholders."
However, while international pressure appears to have played a role in Khanh's release, there's no sign of a broader shift in how the government deals with civil society, says a person who's worked with nongovernmental organizations in Vietnam. The person declined to speak on the record because they feared government reprisals.
Swanton says Vietnam's government has shown "no desire or no political will to engage with civil society."
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says it's concerned about a pattern of arbitrary detentions in Vietnam that "may amount to a serious violation of international law." The State Department says there's been a "serious problem" with the Vietnamese government targeting people who protest land seizures and other issues that it sees as politically sensitive.
Human rights and international development experts say that moving ahead with the country's JETP under those conditions would set a dangerous precedent — for human rights as well as efforts to increase funding for climate initiatives. Investors want more accountability, says Liu of the World Resources Institute, so they know their money is being put to good use.
"You can pour all the money you want into various development programs," says Bruce Shoemaker, a board member at Inclusive Development International. "But if you don't have governments and implementing organizations that are going to act fairly and in the best interests of their societies as a whole, then you're just not going to succeed."