Regrettably, an opportunity to advance human rights in Laos has instead resulted in yet another aid project.

Indications leading up to the latest Lao-Australia Human Dialogue were encouraging. In the 2015 Universal Periodic Review, Australia filed four recommendations to Laos on the death penalty, the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone,  internet restrictions, and constraints on civil society in Laos. Following the HR dialogue in Canberra that same year, Richard Andrews, the First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) promised continued pressure on these same issues.

More recently, consultations were held with various groups in Vientiane, including INGOs and NPAs. Detailed submissions were made by Human Rights Watch, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, and others. The Australian Embassy in Laos also encouraged others to submit additional inputs.

The government delegation from Australia included high-level officials, two of whom met with Ng Shui Meng, spouse of Sombath Somphone, who requested they ask for further information about Sombath’s whereabouts and the investigation into his disappearance, which the Lao government claims is continuing, even though it has given no updates in over four years.

Expectations were high, but based on reports released by the Australian Embassy and Lao media, outcomes were not only disappointing, but fundamentally divergent.

The only human rights issue even mentioned is the rights of persons with disabilities. A member of the Australian delegation spoke about race discrimination, but only in reference to Australia.

And there is not even a vague allusion to any specific cases.

Instead, focus is on a new AUD 815,000 technical assistance package which “…will provide practical support to the Lao Government to meet its international human rights commitments.” Indeed, the project partner on the Lao side will be the Department of Treaties and Law in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

That the GoL is far behind in reporting on many of the international conventions it has ratified is well known. This aid will apparently assist in clearing that backlog.

The chasm between written laws and actual enforcement is also well known, yet the initiative will focus on technical assistance and capacity-building at the central level.

The report also states the GoL “…intends to implement at least 60 per cent of the 116 recommendations it accepted in the 2015 Universal Periodic Review (UPR)…” It should be noted that over half way through the UPR period, the government has yet to release its strategy for this work. The question also arises why the GoL accepted 116 recommendations if it only has the capacity or will to implement an estimated 60 percent of them.

In conclusion, earlier promises and assurances on specific human rights cases and issues appear to have been transformed into a development cum capacity-building project focussing on the GoL’s international commitments of reporting rather than human rights obligations to its own people.

Note: A more substantive statement has subsequently been released by DFAT.