Citizens don't believe in the system that's supposed to keep them safe; UN report calls for judicial reform and enhanced law enforcement
A woman collects garbage at a fishing port in Vietnam's central Ly Son Islands. A recent report has found that many Vietnamese people suffering pollution in their homes or workplaces do not complain or file lawsuits because of a lack of faith in a system that they don't believe protects them. PHOTO: REUTERS
Nguyen Van Muoi has been falling sick every few weeks ever since a composite ware factory opened adjacent to his house a year ago.
"You wouldn't know how terrible the smell of recycled plastic is," said the 50-year-old motorbike mechanic in Long An Province's Chau Thanh District.
"All my neighbors and I have complained to local authorities at several levels. They did inspect the site but it only made the factory owner more cunning by working at night to avoid inspectors."
As a result of being an active complainant, Muoi has to suffer the toxic odor at night and was threatened by a bunch of thugs hired by the factory owner.
"I don't know whether the odor or the threat is the reason for his illness," his wife said. "Or maybe both."
But Muoi might consider himself somewhat lucky, as he at least got a response from local agencies. Many residents wait in vain for years or even decades for a reply to complaints about pollution.
According to a report released on October 3 by the Vietnam Lawyers' Association (VLA) and the Center for Community Support Development Studies, one-fifth of all citizens' complaints on social entitlement policy and environmental pollution have received no feedback from the appropriates state agencies.
Only 12 percent of residents living in polluted areas have taken complaints or lawsuits to local governmental agencies to request the removal of sources of pollution and to seek compensation for damages, according to the UN-sponsored Justice Index 2012, the first-ever report of its kind in Vietnam.
"While many raised their concerns about the quality of their local living environment, the majority did not take any action to resolve such concerns," the report found.
With the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the report was based on the experiences of more than 5,000 people from a cross-section of society living in 21 provinces and cities across the country.
"The right to live in an unpolluted environment is also poorly protected," the report found.
The report said there is not yet an effective mechanism enabling citizens to request the settlement of a dispute over pollution and demand repairs or to claim for damages due to pollution.
"This is partially a result of the priority given to policies for economic development at any cost and the lack hof attention paid to the enforcement of regulations on environmental protection and the punishment of violating acts," it said.
Growth at all cost
John Sawdon, a senior environmental economist for the Hanoi-based NGO International Center for Environmental Management, said Vietnam is a long way from class action lawsuits or other group litigation.
"I think economic goals have often taken precedence, this is understandable, but not sustainable," he told Vietweek.
According to Sawdon, the monitoring of pollution and enforcement of environmental regulations in Vietnam are weak.
"Very few firms have pollution emissions monitored, fines are inadequate to incentivize expensive investment in pollution control equipment and polluters do not face criminal sanctions," he said.
According to the report, over 60 percent of respondents think their local governments "prioritize economic development rather than environmental protection."
Lack of strictness on behalf of authorities in dealing with acts of pollution and environmental crimes is also considered a cause of this condition, the report pointed out.
Respondents also voiced their demand for a responsive, efficient, reliable, professional and accessible justice system with a high level of integrity.
Judicial reform and enhanced law enforcement are essential to achieve a higher level of human development in Vietnam, according to the report.
The Justice Index 2012 looks into five dimensions of the administration of justice and rule of law as perceived and experienced by the people, in particular accessibility, equity, integrity, reliability and efficiency along with a guarantee of fundamental rights.
Considering complaints of land disputes and environment together, the report found the settlement of these complaints were "unresolved pending state action" and it often took state agencies a longer time to handle administrative complaints than allowed by law.
The average time taken to address an administrative complaint ranged from 17 to 27 months, depending on the type of individual or household enquiry.
According to nearly half of the surveyed people, land disputes were the most common type of dispute and a "disturbing" issue in their localities.
Up to 38 percent of land disputes are related to land use rights certificates, compensation and reallocation.
The surveyed people revealed that existing land use regulations and opaque local land use plans have led to citizens' distrust of land tenure security and resistance to long-term land investments.
Tran Thi Huong Trang, chief counsel of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center in Hanoi, is hopeful that the environmental problems could be solved if the parliament will approve the draft amended Law on Environmental Protection.
"[Relevant] difficulties and the lack of regulations will be mostly overcome if the proposals to draft No. 5 of the Law on Environment Protection are approved by the National Assembly next year.
"At that time, we may say "˜Vietnam allows class-action suits or enables non-affected parties to file public interest lawsuits'."
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