Laos: community leader Sombath Somphone must be found

icj_logoInternational Commission of Jurists: 17 January 2013

The ICJ calls on the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to take an active role in determining the fate and whereabouts of Sombath Somphone, a community leader in Laos.

The ICJ also calls on the AICHR to fulfill its mandate under Article 4, paragraph 1.11 of its Terms of Reference, and develop a common position and strategy for tackling the serious problem of enforced and involuntary disappearances in the ASEAN region.

This position must aim towards hastening the resolution of cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances in the region, as well as effectively preventing these violations in the future.

Sombath Somphone is the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Center (PDTC) and 2005 recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.

He also led Laos’ civil society groups in participating at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) held in October 2012.

He was last seen being stopped by local police at the Thadeau police station on 15 December 2012, at around 5:00pm.

His family has no information on his fate or whereabouts to this day.

“It should be an urgent concern for the AICHR to give sustained priority to this case and it should vigorously encourage the government of Laos to make every effort to locate him,” said Sam Zarifi, Regional Director of the ICJ for Asia and the Pacific.

“The AICHR should seize this case as a chance to address the issue of enforced and involuntary disappearances in the ASEAN,” Zarifi added. “It should use its mandate to formulate a common position on this issue, to push governments to resolve cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances in the region.”

Following his “disappearance”, the AEPF requested ASEAN parliamentarians to conduct a mission to Laos to investigate the case.

To that end, three parliamentarians from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia traveled to Laos from 13 to 15 January 2013 and spoke to high-level representatives of government about the “disappearance” of Sombath Somphone.

One of the parliamentarians, Mr. Charles Santiago, observed that the government of Laos had evinced no political will to resolve this case.

He noted the half-hearted efforts of police in investigating this case, as illustrated by the fact that they had only called in twice Ng Shui Meng, Sombath Somphone’s wife, since her husband had been missing.

On both occasions, she was asked questions irrelevant to the case, such as how long they had been married, whether or not they had children, and where they reside.

The parliamentarians made it clear that finding Sombath Somphone, a well-known civil society leader, is crucial.

As pointed out in a public statement by Mr. Walden Bello, the parliamentarian from the Philippines, “the immediate surfacing of Mr. Sombath is in the interest of all parties, of Mr. Sombath and his family, of the Lao PDR, and of the ASEAN.”

The ICJ recalls that all States, including Laos, have an obligation to conduct a prompt, thorough and independent investigation wherever there are reasonable suspicions of enforced or involuntary disappearance.

The ICJ also emphasizes that resolving the case of Sombath Somphone is important not only for Laos, but also for the ASEAN as a region.

His citation for the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership indicates he is recognized for “his hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders.”

His work not only benefits the people of Laos, but also contributes to the aspiration of ASEAN as expressed in its Charter, which is that of ensuring “sustainable development for the benefit of present and future generations and to place the well-being, livelihood and welfare of the peoples at the center of the ASEAN community building process.”

Sombath Somphone is the kind of leader integral to the realization of this vision of the ASEAN.

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