Media Release: 5th Australia-Lao PDR Human Rights Dialogue

DFAT: 02 August 2017

Australia and the Lao PDR held their 5th Human Rights Dialogue on 18 July 2017 in Vientiane. The two sides had frank and constructive discussions on an extensive range of issues, including engagement with international human rights mechanisms, protection and discrimination issues, access to justice and cases of concern.

Australia welcomed the Lao PDR’s ongoing engagement on human rights. In the margins of the Dialogue, Australia and the Lao PDR launched the 2017-2021 Australia-Lao PDR Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program. The Program is Australia’s practical support to assist the Lao PDR meet its international human rights obligations.

While in Vientiane, the Australian delegation held a range of meetings on human rights issues with Lao officials, including the Chairman of the National Steering Committee on Human Rights, Minister Bounkert Sangsomsack, religious leaders and representatives of Non-Profit Associations (NPAs – local civil society groups).

Australia welcomed the opportunity for its human rights delegation to be able to visit Vientiane’s Somsanga Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre and Phonthong Prison to observe conditions. Australia notes the challenges facing both Somsanga and Phonthong, including limited budget.

In preparation for the Dialogue, Australia consulted civil society in Australia and Laos, and will debrief these groups on dialogue outcomes in due course.

During the dialogue, Australia was encouraged to learn the Lao Prime Minister was about to issue a new decree to clarify the framework regulating the activities of NPAs in the Lao PDR. Australia encouraged Laos to reform rules that constrain the operations of civil society organisations, given their important role in Laos’ socio-economic development.

Australia called on the Lao PDR to resolve all outstanding cases of human rights concern, including the disappearance of Lao civil society worker, Mr Sombath Somphone.

Australia underlined its concern at the legal limitations to freedom of expression in the Lao PDR. Australia called on Laos to review both its law on mass media and the decree on internet-based information control; and release any persons detained for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression, demonstration and association.

Both countries noted their respective challenges in promoting gender equality and reducing violence against women and children. Australia praised efforts by Lao Prime Minister Thongloun and Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay in speaking publicly about violence against women and children.

The two sides also discussed freedom of religion or belief, and the protection of the rights of LGBTI people, persons with disability and people from culturally and linguistically diverse groups.

Australia also welcomed the Lao PDR’s efforts in raising awareness about religious tolerance. Australia called on Laos to remove its declaration on Article 18 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights related to freedom of religion or belief.

Australia welcomed the Lao Government’s efforts to become a rule of law state by 2020 and improve access to justice, and encouraged Laos to continue reforms in this area.

Australia particularly welcomed a recent decision by the Lao PDR to reduce the number of offences attracting the death penalty from 18 to 12, and urged Laos to work towards formal abolition.

Australia outlined the work of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, and reiterated our commitment to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Both countries shared their experiences in engaging with international human rights mechanisms. Australia encouraged the Lao PDR to issue standing invitations to all UN Special Rapporteurs. Laos sought advice on Australia’s approach to the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Dr Lachlan Strahan, First Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Policy Division of DFAT, led the Australian delegation, which included representatives from the Australian Human Rights Commission. Dr Phoukhong Sisoulath, Director-General, Treaties and Law Affairs of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led the Lao PDR delegation.

(Note: The Sombath Initiative criticised an earlier statement released on the Australian Embassy in Laos’ website. This DFAT release is considerably more substantive.)

Laos: No Progress on Rights

HRW: 17 July 2017

Australian officials should press the government of Laos to respect human rights at the Australian-Laos human rights dialogue, scheduled for July 18-19, 2017, in Vientiane, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the Australian government. Key areas of concern in Laos are freedom of speech, association, and assembly; enforced disappearances; abusive drug detention centers; and repression of minority religious groups.

“The Lao government’s suppression of political dissent and lack of accountability for abuses stand out in a human rights record that is dire in just about every respect,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “As a major development partner of Laos, Australia can and should press for greater respect for basic rights.”

Restrictions on civil and political rights in Laos include draconian controls over freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly. The lack of fair trials of criminal suspects, widespread judicial corruption, and entrenched impunity for human rights violations are continuing problems, Human Rights Watch said. (more…)

ASEAN MPs urge Australia to push for human rights improvements in Laos

APHR: 17 July 2017

JAKARTA — Southeast Asian lawmakers have called on Australian officials to press for improvements to the human rights situation in Laos when they meet with the Lao government for their fifth bilateral human rights dialogue tomorrow in Vientiane.

In a submission to the Australian government, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) urged members of the delegation to raise critical concerns about restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms with their Lao hosts, and called for further inquiry into the case of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane in December 2012.

“The human rights situation in Laos continues to be abysmal. Since Sombath’s disappearance, the space for independent civil society in the country – already one of the most repressive in the region – has narrowed considerably. Meanwhile, the public as a whole remains deeply fearful of raising sensitive issues,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament, who has made multiple visits to Laos since 2012 to inquire about Sombath’s disappearance, as well as the broader situation for civil society. (more…)

Amnesty International Report 2016/17: Laos

Amnesty International: February 2017

The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remained severely restricted. State control of media and civil society was tightened as Laos hosted international meetings. Repression of human rights defenders continued. Two prisoners of conscience were released in March after being held for almost 17 years.

There was no progress in the investigation into the enforced disappearance in 2012 of a
society member. The death penalty remained mandatory for serious drug offences. (more…)

EU must demand release ofdissidents, resolution of enforced disappearances

FIDH: 13 February 2017

The European Union (EU) must demand the Lao government release all political prisoners and make real progress towards solving all cases of enforced disappearances, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today.

FIDH and LMHR made the call ahead of the 7th EU-Laos human rights dialogue, which is scheduled to be held in Vientiane on 16-17 February 2017. In conjunction with their call, the two organizations released a briefing paper that provides an update on the human rights situation in Laos since the previous dialogue, held in November 2015.

“After many fruitless rounds of human rights dialogues, the EU can no longer tolerate the Lao government’s deceptive tactics and its failure to uphold its human rights obligations. The EU must make it clear that the release of all dissidents and the transparent and thorough investigation of all cases of enforced disappearances, including Sombath Somphone’s, are conditions for the continuation of constructive bilateral relations, said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.

In a break with previous years, in November 2016, the EU failed to raise the issue of the enforced disappearance of prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone in its statement released on the occasion of the annual round table meeting between the Lao government and development partners. In addition, Sombath’s name was not mentioned in the joint statement issued at the conclusion of the 6th dialogue on 6 November 2015. His case was vaguely referred to as “the disappearance.”

“The EU’s failure to even mention Sombath Somphone’s name in its interaction with the Lao government plays into Vientiane’s strategy of seeking to relegate Sombath’s case to oblivion. If the human rights dialogue is not accompanied by any strong message it will remain a hopeless exercise,” said LMHR President Vanida Thephsouvanh.

In their joint briefing paper, FIDH and LMHR make specific recommendations to the EU to demand Laos show tangible progress with regard to: the right to freedom of opinion and expression; arbitrary detentions; enforced disappearances; the death penalty; and electoral reform.

Since its first human rights dialogue with the EU in 2005, Laos has consistently ranked near the bottom of many international indexes and rankings compiled by independent organizations that measure respect for democratic principles and key civil and political rights.

Press contacts:

  • FIDH: Mr. Andrea Giorgetta (English) – Tel: +66886117722 (Bangkok)
  • FIDH: Ms. Audrey Couprie (French, English) – Tel: +33143551412 (Paris)
  • LMHR: Ms. Vanida Thephsouvanh (French, English, Lao) – Tel: +33160065706 (Paris)

Face à l’impunité du régime laotien, ne nous taisons pas !

Libération: 15 Décembre 2016

Anne-Sophie Gindroz, ancienne directrice de Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation au Laos

Sombath Somphone en 2005. Il avait fondé l’ONG Padetc. Photo Bullit Marquez. AP

Fondateur d’une ONG de soutien aux paysans, le leader communautaire Sombath Somphone est porté disparu depuis quatre ans. Les autorités du Laos sont pointées du doigt pour leur autoritarisme et leur politique répressive.

Il y a quatre ans, le leader communautaire Sombath Somphone était enlevé devant un poste de police à Vientiane au Laos. C’était le 15 décembre 2012. Dans d’autres pays, la police lance généralement un appel au public pour rechercher la personne disparue. Pas au Laos où l’on vous intime de ne pas poser de questions. Dans d’autres pays, la police accueille favorablement toute aide. Pas au Laos où les offres d’assistance ont été systématiquement refusées. Dans d’autres pays, la population et les médias sont encouragés à diffuser l’information. Pas au Laos où les avis de recherche affichés ont été déchirés et la publication dans les journaux est soumise à autorisation spéciale. (more…)