Parliamentarians urge Secretary Kerry to raise human rights concerns on visit to Laos and Cambodia

APHR: 24 January 2016

“Sombath’s work touched the lives of many in Laos and across the ASEAN community. We hope Secretary Kerry raises his case directly with the Prime Minister. That kind of high-level discussion would be hard for the Lao authorities to ignore,” Santiago said.

APHRJAKARTA – US Secretary of State John Kerry should raise concerns about the state of democracy and human rights in Laos and Cambodia when he meets with leaders in Vientiane and Phnom Penh this week, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today.

“Secretary Kerry should make it clear that the United States views respect for human rights as a core component of bilateral relations, inseparable from trade and security concerns that too often overshadow it. He should seek firm, public commitments from Lao and Cambodian leaders on this front,” said APHR Chairperson and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago.

The visits by the Secretary come just weeks before US President Barack Obama is scheduled to host the leaders of all 10 ASEAN member states, for a special US-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands, California. The summit, which is scheduled to take place on 15-16 February, will be the first of its kind on US soil.

“These high-level meetings present an opportunity to press ASEAN leaders on unfulfilled human rights promises,” said Santiago.

“It’s also important to recognize the concerning political trajectory across the region: democracy has taken a serious hit, and the people of ASEAN – including the individuals we represent in parliaments throughout Southeast Asia – are struggling to be heard.”

Parliamentarians urged Secretary Kerry to raise concerns about restrictions on independent civil society during his meeting with Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong on 25 January, following up on a related recommendation made by the US government during Laos’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2015.

The Secretary should also address the disturbing pattern of enforced disappearances in the country, APHR said. In particular, he should inquire about Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader, who went missing after being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane on 15 December 2012.

“Sombath’s work touched the lives of many in Laos and across the ASEAN community. We hope Secretary Kerry raises his case directly with the Prime Minister. That kind of high-level discussion would be hard for the Lao authorities to ignore,” Santiago said.

APHR called on Secretary Kerry to address the persecution of opposition voices in Cambodia when he meets with Prime Minister Hun Sen on 26 January.

In recent months, Cambodian authorities have stepped up attacks against opposition lawmakers and activists, using the courts and other means in order to intimidate and persecute critical voices. This includes the removal of opposition leader Sam Rainsy from his seat in the National Assembly, as well as charges leveled against him in relation to a 2008 defamation case.

“A frank discussion with the Prime Minister would be a step in the right direction,” said Mu Sochua, an APHR member and Cambodian MP. “It is important that US officials stand firm in their support for democracy in Cambodia. Free and fair elections in 2018 must be a clear benchmark for closer cooperation on all levels.”

“On trade, the United States should be clear that no special preferences will be given until there are signs of a genuine commitment to improve the human rights situation,” Sochua added.

Parliamentarians also urged Secretary Kerry to raise specific concerns with the Cambodian Prime Minister, including restrictions on freedom of association and assembly, land rights violations, and threats to the ability of trade unions to operate in the country.

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