Laos faces rebuff in UN council seat push

Bangkok Post: 29 August 2013

The Lao government’s inaction on the disappearance of activist Sombath Sompone would hinder the country’s quest for membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a member of the European Union (EU) parliament said yesterday.

Soren Sondergaard, an EU parliamentarian, said Lao authorities told him during his recent visit to the land-locked country they felt sorry about Mr Sombath’s disappearancebut they did not seem to take any action on the matter.

It was a disappointment that the Lao regime remained in a state of denial, said Mr Sondergaard, from Denmark.

Although it was still unknown whether state officials were involved in his disappearance, it was the regime’s responsibility to investigate this case, he said.

Mr Sondergaard’s delegation, which included a Belgian adviser and an Indonesian activist, paid a three-day visit to Laos earlier this week.

The group met Saysomphone Phomvilhane, vice-president of the National Assembly; Sayakane Sisouvang, permanent secretary for foreign affairs; and Sisavath Khamsaly, deputy director-general of the Lao Foreign Ministry’s Department of Europe and America.

Mr Sombath, a well-respected leader in education and sustainable development in Laos and recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, disappeared on the evening of Dec 15 last year in Vientiane.

“The disappearance took place just six weeks after the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, so it gave the EU an extra obligation to push for an investigation in his case,” Mr Sondergaard said. He urged Asean and the international community to apply pressure on Laos to ensure Mr Sombath’s safe return to his family.

Mr Sondergaard’s visit to Laos is expected to be followed by an EU parliamentary delegation in October.

“Laos has clear objectives for their future and the role of civil society. If they cannot not come up with a clear explanation, we will send a signal to all concerned parties that Laos’ application for the membership of the UN Human Rights Council should be blocked,” the MEP said.

Laos plans to run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2016-2018.

The MEP conceded the EU had no stronger measures to pressure Laos to act on Mr Sombath’s case.

He said, however, it would be difficult for Laos to seek to upgrade its relations with the EU if it failed to provide an explanation on Mr Sombath’s case since doing so would require the EU parliament’s the EU parliament’s endorsement.

He said new EU diplomats assigned to Laos would be asked to question the Laos government about the case again and again and it would not be easy for Vientiane to keep ignoring the case.

Paul-Emile Dupret, adviser of the left-wing European United Left/Nordic Green Left in the European parliament, said he was disturbed to hear Lao civil servants such as Mr Sayakane deny that Mr Sombath’s case was an “enforced disappearance”.

Mr Dupret said he was dismayed that Laos has continued to deny it was an enforced disappearance and is back-pedalling from, if not stalling, a police investigation.