Campaigner Lindsay Duffield explains some of the challenges ahead to make sure the EU-Vietnam trade agreement doesn‘t undermine human rights or climate change commitments.
Yesterday the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade voted to approve a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and Vietnam. The Agreement will now go to the main Parliament for approval and the Government of Vietnam is expected to ratify it later this year. Those interested in trade, human rights and forests both inside and outside Vietnam will be watching closely to see if commitments around greater accountability mechanisms and transparency translate into reality.
These commitments have come from the highest levels. Amidst ever-louder calls within both Europe and Vietnam for more government accountability and transparency in the new FTA, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Chair of the Trade Committee Bernd Lange recently reiterated his commitment to ensuring enhanced scrutiny of the Agreement’s impact on environmental, labour and social issues.
Speaking in the presence of the Vietnamese Ambassador on 2 December 2019, Lange reminded parliamentarians of his proposal to create a mechanism allowing EU and Vietnamese Parliaments to play a role in monitoring FTA implementation. Special mention was given to elements connected to labour, the environment and climate change. A month earlier he reiterated the need to ensure that independent civil society in Vietnam have a recognised role in scrutinising the Agreement.
In light of Vietnam’s worsening human rights record, Parliamentarians and human rights organisations have raised concerns about the agreement, demanding that it not be ratified without real improvements to the human rights environment. As Vietnam is a major hub for timber processing in South East Asia, the deal could also affect forests.
Vietnam’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT VPA) should ensure that any increased demand for timber products does not result in increased illegal logging or deforestation, but the system will only work if there is robust independent monitoring and redress systems embedded in both the VPA and the FTA.
It is worrying therefore that the VPA monitoring system is still being developed – even though the agreement legally entered into force in 2019. A network of civil society organisations in Vietnam is still struggling to be recognised as having a legitimate role in monitoring forest and timber trade legality. Some Vietnamese civil society groups are beginning to articulate their own ideas of how they can monitor the FTA.
Realising these goals will be an uphill struggle, as will ensuring that the environmental and social commitments within the FTA are actually upheld. Perhaps the creation of a new role within the European Commission, the proposed Chief Trade Enforcement Officer, will help. In the meantime, we expect Members of the European Parliament to stand by their commitments to ensure political space is opened for genuinely independent civil society in Vietnam to scrutinise the environmental and social impacts of the country’s FTA with the EU. The trade committee’s vote yesterday takes the Agreement one step closer to entering into force; these commitments are more urgent than ever.
For more information about Fern’s trade campaign, see the ‘Forests and Forest Peoples in Free Trade Agreements’ report.