Singapore taking the lead in pressuring Laos to expedite investigation into disappearance of Sombath Somphone

Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights: 18 April 2014

LOGO_APHRBANGKOK – ASEAN Parliamentarians today praised Singapore for its consistent efforts to urge the Lao government to expedite its inquiry into the disappearance of civil society actor Sombath Somphone and urged other ASEAN nations to take a firm, united stand against the shortcomings of the Lao authorities’ investigation to date.

The Singapore government this week reiterated its concern regarding the stalled investigation into Sombath’s whereabouts after he was disappeared from a street in Vientiane in December 2012.

In written remarks to the Singapore Parliament, Singaporean Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said his government had made its misgivings known to the Lao government and that it has also offered assistance to Sombath’s wife, Dr. Ng Shui Meng, a Singaporean citizen resident in Vientiane.

“[The Singapore government has] consistently raised our concern to the Lao PDR government over Mr Sombath’s disappearance at the highest levels, including with the Lao PDR President, Prime Minister, President of the National Assembly and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs,” K Shanmugam said.

“We have urged the Lao PDR government to expedite their investigations and to resolve this case as quickly as possible.”

The Foreign Affairs Minister’s remarks were in response to questions raised by Deputy House Speaker and Vice President of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Mr. Charles Chong.

K. Shanmugam however, said there was little more Singapore could do other than continue to monitor developments whilst urging its Lao counterparts to press ahead with their investigation.

“The matter is within the purview of Lao PDR. There is little that countries outside of Lao PDR can do. Nevertheless, our Embassy in Vientiane will continue to keep in close contact with Dr Ng and seek regular updates from the Lao PDR government on the investigations into Mr Sombath’s disappearance,” K. Shanmugam said.

APHR called on ASEAN nations to take note of the grouping’s inability to sufficiently tackle serious human rights concerns, and urged respective member states to place the development of a regional human rights mechanism and expansion of the mandate of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) on the agenda of the upcoming ASEAN Forum.

“ASEAN’s inability to tackle the case of Mr. Sombath’s disappearance, as well as numerous other high profile cases, serve to highlight the region’s shortcomings in delivering basic human rights protections for our citizens,” said Eva Kusuma Sundari, Indonesian Member of Parliament and President of APHR.

APHR recognizes the great efforts being put into trying to ensure the ASEAN Economic Community is established for 2015. However, without addressing the social, environmental and other aspects of the ASEAN Community, life for the majority of Southeast Asian citizens could become more difficult, injustices will increase and rights will be violated, APHR warned.

“Beyond the personal pain suffered by Sombath’s family, his disappearance has been extremely detrimental to civil society in Laos. The limitations of ASEAN’s efforts to press Laos to follow up on this case shows that we need to seriously discuss possibilities of an effective regional human rights mechanism that can allow us to work together, as a region, to tackle such concerns,” Sundari said.

“We need to raise the bar together. If we are truly to be a ‘Community’, then the rights of citizens across the region must be protected equally. From Myanmar to the Philippines, we can’t ignore human rights violations that take place in any part of our region.”

APHR reiterated its concern about the wider impact on the climate for civil society actors in Laos. The brazen abduction of one of the countries most respected civil society activists has compounded the climate of fear under which those seeking to help the marginalized and disenfranchised operate. It is of vital importance that those working with local communities and wider environmental and human rights issues in Laos are aware that the world is watching and that those responsible for Sombath’s disappearance cannot act with impunity, APHR said.

APHR stressed that enforced disappearances and restriction of civil and political rights were not concerns particular to Laos alone; it remains a region-wide problem.

APHR believes that countries in ASEAN can work together to support Laos’ efforts to open up and become a stronger voice both regionally and internationally; but this cannot happen unless the government lives up to its international obligations on human rights and justice.

Laos is a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance under which it has a responsibility to prevent and remedy any enforced disappearance and is bound under international law to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of this treaty.

Despite positive words from the Lao authorities, efforts to engage with Vientiane appear to have had little impact on the investigation to date. Little new information has surfaced regarding Sombath’s whereabouts and the details surrounding his disappearance.

APHR supports wider calls for the Lao government to establish an independent commission with regional support or involvement to investigate the case. ASEAN member states should use their political leverage to impress upon the Lao government the urgency and seriousness of this case and to clarify the many questions that surround Sombath’s disappearance and the ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile, in reaction to the stalled investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, as well as raising its concerns to the Lao government, Singapore has offered assistance to Sombath’s wife, Dr Ng Shui Meng, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said in his written statement to Parliament.

“Since Mr Sombath Somphone’s disappearance in December 2012, the Singapore Embassy in Vientiane has been in close contact with Mr Sombath’s wife, Dr Ng Shui Meng, a Singapore citizen resident in Vientiane, and providing her with consular assistance,” Mr. K Shanmugam told the Singapore Parliament.

“Our Ambassador in Vientiane facilitated a meeting between Dr Ng and the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) over this issue.”

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) is a collective of lawmakers from Southeast Asia working to improve human rights responses and justice in the region.