Laos’ Rights Record Marred by Arbitrary Arrests, Forced Disappearances and Harsh Treatment in Custody

Radio Free Asia: 10 December 2020

Jailed Lao blogger ‘Mouay’ is shown in an undated photo

The situation “getting worse,” experts say, while the government blames lack of progress on COVID-19.

Citizens who criticize the Lao government are forcibly disappeared or arrested without due process, and endure harsh treatment and lengthy prison terms, experts said on the anniversary of key United Nations human rights pacts that the communist nation has ratified but regularly violates.

Human Rights Day Thursday marks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.

Laos, whose one-party communist government marked its 45th anniversary on Dec. 2, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other key U.N. rights instruments in the 1990s, but the rights commitments are not honored, rights experts and activists say. Continue reading “Laos’ Rights Record Marred by Arbitrary Arrests, Forced Disappearances and Harsh Treatment in Custody”

Laos Grilled on Disappearances, Speech Curbs at UN Rights Meeting

Radio Free Asia: 30 September 2020

Laos’ representative to the UN Office in Geneva Kham-Inh Khitchadeth addresses the UN Human Rights Council Sept. 28, 2020.

“We note from the addendum to the UPR report that it is the duty of the Lao government to search for missing Lao citizens including Mr. Sombath Somphone, the Laotian spouse of a Singapore citizen. We hope that Laotian authorities will resolve the case expeditiously and bring about the much-needed relief to his family,” said En Yu Keefe Chin.

UN members and NGOs called on Laos this week to resolve the forced disappearance case of a prominent rural development expert and stop censoring and jailing peaceful critics, as the Southeast Asian nation faced a review of its rights record in Geneva.

In a hearing Monday at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Laos was questioned over the 2012 disappearance of Sombath Somphone, its highly restrictive media environment, and freedom of religion – with one NGO crediting Vientiane for some improvements in treating religious minorities.

Singapore’s representative used the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Lao’s rights record to highlight the case Sombath Somphone, whose wife is Singaporean. Continue reading “Laos Grilled on Disappearances, Speech Curbs at UN Rights Meeting”

Government response to UN human rights review a step in the wrong direction

FIDH: 29 September 2020

The government stated that investigations into cases of disappearances were “considered on a case by case basis,” but refused to reveal how many investigations it had conducted and to provide any information about the “search” for Sombath Somphone.

The Lao government’s failure to accept key recommendations received during its latest Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a step in the wrong direction for human rights in Laos, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. The UPR report for Laos was adopted today in Geneva, Switzerland.

“The Lao government’s non-committal response to international concern over key human rights issues signals that rights abuses and repression of civil society may continue with total impunity for years to come. The international community must step up its pressure on the Lao government and put human rights at the top of its agenda vis-a-vis its relations with Vientiane.” Rahman Khan, FIDH Secretary-General

The Lao government accepted 160 of the 226 recommendations it received during its third UPR in January 2020. The remaining 66 recommendations were “noted” (i.e. not accepted).

“Once again, the Lao government is sweeping its human rights problems under the rug, pretending no one will notice. The international community should not fall for Vientiane’s tricks and, instead, establish clear benchmarks against which human rights progress, or lack thereof, can be measured.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President

Below is a brief analysis of the government’s response to the recommendations made by UN member states with regard to selected key human rights issues.

Enforced disappearances

The government’s response was inadequate with regard to the issue of enforced disappearances. The government did not accept 13 of the 15 recommendations that called for investigations into all cases of enforced disappearance, including that of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was specifically mentioned in five “noted” recommendations. The government stated that investigations into cases of disappearances were “considered on a case by case basis,” but refused to reveal how many investigations it had conducted and to provide any information about the “search” for Sombath Somphone. In addition, the government made no commitments regarding the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) – a treaty Laos signed in September 2008. As in the previous UPR cycle, the government reiterated it was only “considering” ratifying the ICPPED.

Torture and detention conditions

Despite numerous and credible reports of torture, ill-treatment, and sub-standard conditions in various places of detention, the government did not accept four recommendations that called for investigations into allegations of torture, the prevention of torture, and the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OP-CAT). The government accepted two recommendations that called for the improvement of conditions in places of detention.

Death penalty

All 16 recommendations regarding the death penalty did not enjoy the government’s support. They included recommendations that called for: the abolition of the death penalty; the establishment of a moratorium on executions; and the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

Civil society

Amid ongoing repression of civil society, the government accepted two recommendations that called for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society to operate. However, the government refused to accept two recommendations that called for the amendment of legislation that restricts the right to freedom of association. This legislation includes the draconian Decree on Associations (Decree 238), which several UN human rights monitoring mechanisms have criticized for being inconsistent with international standards related to the right to freedom of association. The government said the recommendation to amend Decree 238 was “entirely inaccurate” and did not reflect the “real situation in the country.” The government also falsely claimed that the drafting process of Decree 238 “had gone through extensive consultations with all relevant stakeholders.”

Right to freedom of expression

The government did not accept all three recommendations that called for an end to the persecution of individuals for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression and one recommendation that urged the release of those detained for exercising that right. Another three recommendations calling for the amendment of legislation restricting the exercise of the right to freedom of expression were “noted.” Despite clear evidence to the contrary, the government made the outrageous claim that it had “made efforts to facilitate freedom of expression.”

National Human Rights Institution

The government failed to accept all four recommendations that called for the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) in accordance with the Paris Principles. The government touted the National Committee on Human Rights (NCHR) as the “overarching human rights mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights at the national level.” However, the NCHR is a government inter-agency coordination body whose composition, powers, and mandate are completely inconsistent with the Paris Principles.

Cooperation with UN special procedures

The government refused to accept the two recommendations that called on Vientiane to issue a standing invitation to all UN special procedures. The government justified its refusal by saying that a standing invitation “is not applicable” and that invitations to special procedures mandate holders are considered “on a case by case basis and also based on convenient timing for both sides.”

Few Answers on Missing Lao Citizens as World Marks Enforced Disappearance Victims

Radio Free Asia: 29 August 2020

The 10th annual International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance Sunday offers a fresh reminder that Laos has done little or nothing to investigate citizens, including a highly respected development expert, who have vanished in the communist Southeast Asian nation, human rights groups said.

Rural education and development expert Sombath Somphone and others remain unaccounted for, years after disappearing, in most cases after last being seen in police hands.

On December 15, 2012, police stopped Sombath Somphone in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since. Continue reading “Few Answers on Missing Lao Citizens as World Marks Enforced Disappearance Victims”

Lao Democracy Activist Still Missing After a Year, as Thai Police Investigation ‘Stalls’

Radio Free Asia: 25 August 2020

[Od] had also called… for a U.N. investigation into the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone.

A Lao democracy activist who vanished under mysterious circumstances in Thailand last year is still missing, with Thai police saying no progress has been made in the investigation into his disappearance.

Od Sayavong, aged 34 at the time he went missing, disappeared in Bangkok on Aug. 26, 2019 after telling a roommate he would be home for dinner, Od’s roommate told RFA in an earlier report, adding that Od’s involvement in politics was the most likely reason for his disappearance.

“He had come out to protest against the [Lao] government, and most recently he had posted a video clip online criticizing the Lao government during the time of the ASEAN meetings in Thailand,” the roommate said. Continue reading “Lao Democracy Activist Still Missing After a Year, as Thai Police Investigation ‘Stalls’”

Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos

The Diplomat:  10 June 2020 by David Hutt

Enforced disappearances — a tragedy all too familiar in Latin America — are increasingly becoming a feature of Southeast Asian politics, too.

One of bloody characters of Latin American history is that of los desaparecidos, the activist or dissident or just unfortunate person who says the wrong thing who suddenly disappears, never to be heard of again. Sometimes their body is discovered years later, but in most cases they remain missing forever.   

In the English language, there is no word that conveys the sense of hopelessness and not knowing. The family who finds a murdered loved one can at least grieve – but for the families of those who remain disappeared, it is the not knowing that most consumes their anguish. Having spoken to families of desaparecidos from Argentina to Guatemala, the not-knowing is still as raw as it when their loved ones disappeared decades ago. Continue reading “Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos”

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (21)

Closure of PADETC

My dearest Sombath,

Today I write to tell you that PADETC, the organization you started since 1996, is officially deregistered.  It has been a difficult decision for me to request to deregister PADETC, an organization you had worked so hard to establish and lead for so many years.

However, over the past 7 years since you disappeared, the authorities have denied renewal of PADETC’s license of operation.  In fact some people in government do not even want to hear the name of PADETC mentioned.  For this reason, most of the PADETC staff have left the organization.

Even though the passing of PADETC is sad, I am sure you would support my decision to deregister the organization.  I remember you telling me back in 2008, that you had to prepare for PADETC to evolve to meet the changing times.

In 2008, you had already started to pave the way for PADETC to devolve from being just a development/training organization dependent on external donor funds to become self-sustaining independent entities.  To prepare for this process, you had started mentoring and coaching your staff, based on their capacities and interests, to branch out and develop their own operation units that would be initially affiliated with PADETC, but over time these would become their own independent organizations or enterprises.  PADETC itself would downsize and be transformed into a small mentoring and coaching center, and would eventually be dissolved.

So between 2009 to 2012, some of your more enterprising staff were already running their own affiliated units, providing consultancy services in the following areas: media training and audio/visual production; community forestry management; community services; organic farming training and operations; finance and management operations; and small business enterprises.

Your enforced disappearance in December 2012, fast-forwarded your plans of pushing his staff out to the real world and establish their own organizations.

Over time most of your staff have left PADETC, some for fear of being associated with you, but a number went off to establish their own organizations, with many continuing to use your development concepts of sustainable development and guiding principles in their own work.

So, my dearest Sombath, despite your disappearance, and despite you not being here to guide and mentor many of the young people and younger staff you have trained, your vision and mission have continued and your concepts on sustainable development have spread far and wide.

As you so often said to me, “everything changes, the only unchangeable thing is change itself”. Once more your foresight has proven correct.

I am sure, wherever you are, you will also be relieved and pleased to know that despite the fact that PADETC is no more, your ideas and your vision of PADETC have lived on in many different forms.  Like a strong steady tree, its seeds have spread far and wide.

Be strong and be happy, my love

Shui Meng

Dear Sombath….from Shui Meng (20)

Reflections on what it means to be Locked Down

Dearest Sombath,

I don’t know whether you know that the whole world is now facing a serious pandemic caused by a coronavirus named COVID-19.  It’s a Sars-like virus, but appears to be much more contagious, and has so far infected more than a million people world-wide and caused more than 50,000 deaths.

So to slow the spread to the virus, many countries across the globe have declared a lockdown, meaning that people should stay at home and not go anywhere unless really necessary.

In Laos, the Prime Minister announced a lockdown from 01 -19 April. All schools, offices and businesses are closed with people asked to work from home.  Pimai celebrations, parties, and gatherings involving large numbers of people are also forbidden.

So, over the last few days, I, like most residents in Vientiane, have stayed at home. Just 3 days into the lockdown, I begin to feel uneasy, with a sense that the house is like a prison.  Yes, I can walk around in the garden, read, listen to music, watch TV, do everything I can normally do in the house, except go out.

Today, my thoughts suddenly wondered to you – thinking to myself, what it would have been for you these last eight years living a locked down (or more likely locked-up) existence somewhere.  I asked myself, what is your situation – are you kept in isolation in a small room, or are you allowed some freedom of movement.  How are you keeping yourself physically and mentally busy? Are you able to keep healthy; what kinds of food do you have; do you have access to reading and writing material; and how are you keeping mentally alert?

In the past I have also often thought about such things, and even though I know it would be very difficult for you, I could never quite understand how bad or terrible it could be.  But now when my own freedom of movement has been somewhat restricted, the full force of what your deprivation of freedom actually meant, and the toll it would take on your physical and mental wellbeing came to me more vividly than ever.  It hit me in the gut like nothing has ever hit me before, leaving me gasping for air.

My love, I can only hope that you, who I know is strong of mind and of spirit, would be able to draw on your inner strength to sustain you.  I can also only hope and pray that the injustice you were made to suffer will quickly be righted, your freedom restored, and you will come home to us soon.

My dearest, I also hope that wherever you are, you will not be expose to the COVID-19 virus.  I can only hope and pray for the best for you and for those people you are with. May you be well, may you be healthy. and may you be happy.

Praying for you as always.

Shui Meng