Vietnamese law seems to have a defining problem

By Dang Hung Vo   March 31, 2019 | 05:29 pm PT
Obscure and even non-existent legal definitions are failing to protect the rights of people who need the protection the most.
Dang Hung Vo

Dang Hung Vo

Ever heard of how pigs cannot eat water cabbage and rabbits cannot eat carrots in Vietnam?

This is apparently the law. Apparently, in the list of cattle food allowed to be used in Vietnam, there is no mention of either water cabbage or carrots, only general terms like "yam," for example.

When the law is vague, interpretations can confound. People can argue about whom the law is meant for, what it implies, and so on, but no one can argue that the clearer the law the better it is for everyone who has to follow it.

These days, one thing we can get to hear often is the comment that Vietnam is experiencing a "moral crisis," with all the car crashes and stabbing and sexual harassment cases happening recently.

Moral crisis or not, one thing has become clear. Our laws are incapable of meting out adequate punishment for moral crimes, because, in the first place, we seem to lack clear definitions of what constitutes a crime.

Last month, a teacher in the northern province of Bac Giang was found to have "improperly touched" his female students, specifically in the thighs and the buttocks. Some say it was a classic case of molestation or sexual harassment, but others say it was a "normal gesture" between teachers and students.

Anyway, despite anger and denunciations from the public and organizations local police decided that there was "insufficient evidence" that what the teacher did to his students was molestation.

Just three weeks ago, a 47-year-old man forcibly kissed a woman in an elevator in Hanoi and his punishment was a paltry VND200,000, or $8. It’s not hard to understand the outrage that reverberated across social media, culminating in an online petition calling for changes to the law to introduce tougher punishments on these types of criminals.

Even international media picked up this story.

It was found that the man’s action only constituted a "gesture that hurts one’s dignity," and he was punished accordingly. So, as long as you have about VND2 million in hand, you can run around and forcibly kiss 10 people if you want to.

Pure lunacy.

A quick look reveals that Vietnam has no clear definition on either "molestation" or "sexual harassment." The latest Penal Code, revised in 2017, has provisions for "molesting a person aged under 16," but again, no clear definition of molestation itself.

The lack of clear definitions can also be found in our Labor Law and our Gender Equality Law.

I ask you, lawmakers, how are we supposed to enforce our law if we don’t even know what constitutes a crime in the first place?

Without legal precedence, law enforcers resort to subjective judgments, leading to unfair trials and fickle punishments.

That’s how our laws fail our people.

In developed countries, sexual harassment is clearly defined by law. The European Union defines it as a "form of gender-based violence encompassing acts of unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature, which have a purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment."

From this definition, they have created a legal framework to punish violations, as well as a moral framework to deter such behavior in the first place.

Meanwhile, Vietnam is ranked as one of the frontrunners when it comes to passing laws, but also one of the worst countries to enforce them, according to reports from the World Bank and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Now you know why.

Our legal definitions will remain murky as long as we are not clear about the problems our laws are supposed to tackle. And enforcement of such laws will not solve or deter behavior that is uncivilized and criminal.

It’s about time we change this.

If we don't, we will not be able to achieve something our leaders like to mention very often - a ‘civilized’ society.

*Dang Hung Vo is former vice minister of Natural Resources and Environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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