Constitutional Background

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has had four constitutions, adopted in 1946, 1959, 1980, and 1992; the current constitution was amended in 2001. Regarding the development of the constitution it is crucial to bear in mind that, from the days of Ho Chi Minh's "declaration of independence" till the end of the 1970's, Vietnam was in a permanent state of war and restlessness, and still is in a phase of profound transformation that likewise affects state, politics, society, and economy. These parameters are also reflected in the objectives and contents of the several constitutions each of which marks a certain step in the continuous shifting of the system.

Following the revolution by its first president Ho Chi Minh (1945) and the war with the former colonial ruler France (1946-1954), the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (then called: Democratic Republic of Vietnam) gained independence. In the 1950's, the north, under the leadership of the Communist Party, was transformed into a communist society and economy modeled on the Chinese and Soviet systems. Meanwhile, the capitalist-oriented Republic of Vietnam in the south only survived through the massive financial and military aid of the United States while constantly failing to build a stable and democratically legitimized government. Since the mid-fifties, a growing number of people in the southern rural areas became opposed to the authoritarian Saigon regime and formed a resistance movement which eventually was supported by Hanoi and, in 1960, consolidated in the National Liberation Front ("Viet Cong"). In addition to the civil war in the south, a conventional war against the Communist regime commenced when the US, in response to the Tongking-incident (1964), decided to bomb the northern territories and send ground troops to Vietnam. The American war produced heavy casualties (estimated figures: 4 million civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, 200-250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, 58,200 US soldiers dead or missing in action), massacres and atrocities against civilians on each side, and the indiscriminate destruction and contamination of the environment.

After the withdrawal of the American troops (1973) and the fall of the Saigon regime (1975), South Vietnam was reunited with North Vietnam in 1976. The Communist regime subsequently extended its centrally planned economy and collectivization of land to the entire country. In 1979, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia motivated China to send troops across the border against Hanoi. In the early 1980's, due to its vast international isolation and the failure of the communist economic policy, Vietnam witnessed its most serious ever socio-economic crisis, the inflation rate rising up to a record 774.7% in 1986. Vietnam became one of the poorest countries in the world.

Since the political change of "Doi Moi" (national renewal) was initiated by the Communist Party on its 6th Congress in 1986 and affirmed by the 1992 and 2001 Constitutions, Vietnam has transformed from its isolated anachronistic communism to an internationally integrated (post-) socialism with an increasing orientation towards market economy. With impressive success, the governmental regulation of the economy was reduced and the market was opened to foreign investments. Vietnam has also embarked on massive trade liberalization, joining ASEAN in 1995, AFTA in 1996, ASEM in 1996, and APEC in 1998. The entry into force of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement in December 2001 was a major step towards the accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) which is planned for the end of 2005.

As a result of the policy change, the average economic growth rate reached 8% during the period between 1991-1998, foreign direct investments substantially increased, and living standards of the majority of the Vietnamese people improved. After the setback caused by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, growth rose again to an annual average of 7% in the period from 2000 -2004. Nevertheless, most of Vietnam's economy is still centrally planned and both land and natural resources remain to a large extent state-owned. However, in the meantime organizations and private individuals became entitled to acquire the right to land use and exploitation. The high amount of corruption (as recently documented in the Corruption Perception Index 2004 compiled by Transparency International) remains both a big drawback for further economic growth and a reason for growing discontent and frustration among the people.

Up to the present, the basic functions of the Vietnamese Constitution have been to define and allocate the State powers, to determine policies for the future, and to sanction political and legal developments of the past (for example, the "Doi Moi" policy of 1986 was not rubber-stamped by constitutional law until 1992).

Concerning the political system, the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), the socialist principle of power concentration, and the refusal of a pluralist multi-party-system yet remain unchallenged. Other important institutions like the government, the administration and the army are subordinated to the CPV. It is also dominating state institutions and mass organizations, such as the Vietnam Fatherland Front and the Trade Union. However, the power and the self-assurance of the National Assembly have gradually increased since 1992.

Chapter V of the constitution comprises the fundamental rights. Based on the principle that the citizen's rights are inseparable from his duties (Art. 51), the constitution does not only impart defensive rights that protect the individual from the state but also establishes duties, even with penal character. Due to the absence of constitutional and administrative courts and a lack of legal practice in constitutional matters, reliable and enforceable rights are rather found in simple laws and regulations than in the constitution itself.

In practice, while economic freedoms were expanded, the guarantees of civil and political rights stay weak. Vietnam is still being accused of suppressing political dissent and religious freedom. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, human rights conditions in Vietnam even worsened in 2004:

-- Freedom of expression nationally remained severely limited. Domestic newspapers and television and radio stations remain under strict government control. Although journalists are occasionally able to report on corruption by government officials, direct criticism of the Party is forbidden.

-- The persecution of Christian Montagnards, indigenous hill people from Vietnam's Central Highlands, continues in 2005.

-- According to official Vietnamese media sources monitored by Amnesty International, at least 88 people were sentenced to death in 2004, and at least 64 were executed. True figures are believed to be much higher.

History and News

  • June 2005: As the first visit by a Vietnamese leader since the end of the American War, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai meets US-President G.W. Bush in Washington.
    Expatriate businessmen have ranked Vietnam the third most corrupt country in Asia (after Indonesia and the Philippines), and the country with the second worst judicial system (after Indonesia), according to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong-based consultancy group PERC.
  • March 2005: A US federal court in New York dismisses legal action against US herbicide producers brought by Vietnamese plaintiffs over the use of Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War.
  • Nov 2004: Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions (criticized by Human Rights Watch for strengthening government controls over religious activities).
  • Oct 2004: 5th ASEM Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
  • Jan 2004: State Budget Law makes the National Assembly responsible for the approval of the budget, including allocations to lower levels of government.
    The Prime Minister issues a decree making the reporting and dissemination of statistics on the use of the death penalty a "state secret".
  • July 2002: President Tran Duc Luong and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai reappointed for second term by National Assembly.
  • May 2002: Election for the XIth National Assembly (officially announced participation: 99,7 per cent). 445 (70,4%) out of 632 candidates of the Communist Party were elected; 53 (41,7%) out of 127 candidating non party members were elected.
  • 2002: Beginning of bilateral negotiations for WTO accession.
  • Dec 25, 2001: The Xth National Assembly adopts amendments to the 1992 constitution at its 10th session. The rule of law is affirmed as a basic State principle (Art. 2: "socialist law-governed state"). The National Assembly is given the power to hold votes of confidence on leaders that it elects (including government ministers). The "foreign-invested economic sector" is recognized as an integral part of the economic system (Art. 16).
  • 2001: US-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement.
  • 2000: Opening of stock market in Ho Chi Minh City; Enterprise Law.
  • 1998: Grassroots Democracy Decree; Commercial Code; accession to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
  • 1996: Civil Code; accession to ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA); EU-Vietnam trade agreement; first Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).
  • 1995: Vietnam joins Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); application for accession to WTO; observer status to the GATT; resumption of diplomatic relations with the US.
  • 1994: US-President Clinton lifts trade embargo.
  • 1993: Land Law guarantees transferability and inheritance of land entrusted by the State for long-time use; Environmental Protection Law.
  • 1992: Friendship treaty with ASEAN.
  • Apr 15, 1992: A new constitution is adopted and promulgated three days later. It enhances the powers of the National Assembly as "the highest organ of state power", but continues affirming the Communist Party's leadership over the State and the society as well as the principle of unified powers for the organization and operation of the State. As a corollary of the economic renewal of "Doi Moi", the constitution introduces a "multi-sector and multi-ownership market economy along the socialist orientation"; private ownership is allowed alongside the State and collective sector (Art. 15, 16); foreign organizations and individuals are encouraged to invest capital and transfer technologies; the right to lawful ownership of capital, property, and other interests by foreign organizations and individuals is guaranteed (Art. 24, 25). Though individuals and organizations still do not have the right to own land (Art. 17), they are entrusted with the right of "stable and lasting use" (Art. 18).
  • Oct 1991: In the "Paris Agreement on Cambodia" Vietnam agrees to a transitional UN administration of Cambodia (UNTAC).
  • June 1991: COMECON is formally disbanded.
  • Oct 1990: Official diplomatic relations with the European Community.
  • 1989: Vietnam withdraws troops from Cambodia.
  • 1988: Private corporations are legalized.
  • 1987: Foreign Investment Law; peasant families are given the right of long-term land use.
  • Dec 1986: In response to the serious socio-economic crisis since the late 70's, the Communist Party of Vietnam initiates the "Doi Moi" (national renewal) policy; basic contents: building of a market economy, opening to international political and economic integration; other socialist principles like the leadership of the Communist Party, the dominance of state property and state control of the economy remain untouched.
  • Dec 18, 1980: A new constitution is passed by the IVth National Assembly at its 7th session and promulgated one day later. The leadership of the Communist Party and "the laboring people's collective mastery" are inscribed for the first time. Regarding the economic regime, the 1980 Constitution only recognizes socialist economic sectors (the state-run and the collective economic sector). The organizational apparatus is heavily influenced by the state model of the former Soviet Union.
  • Feb 1979: Chinese troops invade Northern territories as a punitive measure.
  • Jan 1979: Vietnam invades Cambodia and ousts the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.
  • 1978: China cuts all ties with Vietnam. USSR-Vietnam treaty of friendship; Accession to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON).
  • 1977: Vietnam becomes member of UNO.
  • July 2, 1976: The National Assembly, at its first session, officially reunifies Vietnam (Capital: Hanoi), renames the country Socialist Republic of Vietnam and decides to elaborate a new constitution. Many people who supported the Saigon regime are sent to "re-education camps". Over the next years more than one million of Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese ("boat people") flee the country.
  • Apr 30, 1975: Fall of Saigon, capitulation of South Vietnam; Saigon is renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The US extend their trade embargo against North Vietnam to the whole country.
  • 1973: US-Vietnam "Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam": The US government commits itself to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam. The two chief negotiators, Henry Kissinger (US) and Le Duc Tho (North Vietnam), are jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; Tho declines the award. Both Vietnamese regimes continue with hostile military operations.
  • 1970: Kissinger and Le Duc begin secret peace talks. Gradual withdrawal of US troops.
  • Sept 2, 1969: Death of Ho Chi Minh (officially dated on Sept 3 to avoid overlap with the day of the declaration of independence); Le Duan becomes secretary general of the Communist Party.
  • June 1969: US-President Richard Nixon announces policy of "Vietnamization" (training and equipping the South Vietnamese military to enable the US to reduce troop numbers).
  • April 1969: US troop strength in Vietnam reaches peak of 543,500 men.
  • May 1968: Beginning of negotiations between Washington and Hanoi in Paris.
  • March 16, 1968: Massacre by US troops in the village of My Lai.
  • Jan 1968: Tet offensive (a combined assault by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army on US positions).
  • 1966: US troop numbers in Vietnam rise to 400,000, then to 500,000 the following year.
  • 1965: 200,000 American combat troops arrive in South Vietnam; unlimited bombing of North Vietnam (operation "Rolling Thunder"), usage of napalm and herbicides (Agent Orange). General Nguyen Van Thieu becomes chairman of the National Defense Council (State President) in Saigon.
  • 1964: Regular units of the North Vietnamese army begin infiltrating South Vietnam. Tongking-Incident (August): US-navy claims attack by torpedo boats, US-President Johnson orders bombing raids on North-Vietnam.
  • Nov 1963: Military coup of southern army generals against Ngo Dinh Diem opens a series of 8 coups within two years.
  • 1962: Number of US military advisors in South Vietnam rises to 12,000.
  • 1960: Founding of the National Liberation Front (NLF; dubbed "Viet Cong" by the Diem government).
  • Jan 1, 1960: Promulgation of the new constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).
  • 1959: North Vietnam begins infiltrating cadres and weapons into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  • 1957: Insurgent activity and assassinations in South Vietnam begin.
  • 1956: US military advisors assume responsibility from the French for training South Vietnamese forces. President Ngo Dinh Diem begins campaign against communists and political dissidents, refuses to hold country-wide elections due to a supposed majority for Ho Chi Minh.
  • 1955: Ngo Dinh Diem defeats Bao Dai in a rigged election and proclaims himself President of the Republic of Vietnam.
  • 1954: South Vietnam withdraws from the French Union.
  • Sept 1954: United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan found the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) against Communist threats; the scope extends to the area of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam.
  • July 1954: Geneva Peace Accord signed by France and North Vietnam: Vietnam is formally divided into two separate zones of North (Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Capital: Hanoi) and South (Republic of Vietnam, Capital: Saigon) along the 17th Parallel; the separation is described as provisional and national elections are scheduled for 1956.
  • June 1954: Ngo Dinh Diem becomes Prime Minister of Saigon regime; US-President Eisenhower sends CIA agents to Saigon.
  • May 7, 1954: French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
  • 1950: France grants Bao Dai regime independence within the French Union; the new state is promptly recognized by the United States, Great Britain, and other states; the Ho regime is recognized by China, the USSR, and other Soviet allies.
  • 1946-1954: French Indochina War; by 1954, the United States are paying about 80% of the French war costs.
  • 1949: France reinstalls ex-emperor Bao Dai as the ruler of Vietnam.
  • 1946: The National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) passes the first constitution of the country. The document remains in effect in Viet Minh-controlled areas throughout the First Indochina War and in North Vietnam following the partition in 1954.
  • March 1946: Ho Chi Minh elected president of the DRV; France signs agreement with Ho, recognizing Vietnam as a free state within the Indochina federation and the French Union.
  • Sept 2, 1945: Ho Chi Minh's "Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam".
  • Aug 1945: The Japanese army capitulates; the Viet Minh come into power.
  • Mar 1945: Japan establishes the autonomous state of Vietnam (comprising Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China) under the rule of emperor Bao Dai.
  • 1941: Founding of the Viet Minh (Alliance for Independence of Vietnam), a coalition of nationalist and communist groups.
  • 1939: The French colonialist regime surrenders to the Japanese army; Japan allows the French Vichy administration to continue as a figurehead power.
  • 1930: Ho Chi Minh founds the Vietnamese Communist Party.
  • 1893: Laos is added to Indochina.
  • 1887: France merges the regions of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China with Cambodia to form a union of Indochina.
  • 1867: French colony of Cochin China.
  • 1859: French troops capture Saigon.

For methodology see: Comparing Constitutions and International Constitutional Law.
© 1994 - 27.6.2020 / For corrections please contact F. Castenholz or A. Tschentscher.