After eight years, civil society worldwide demands the government establish and reveal Sombath’s fate and whereabouts

FIDH: 15 December 2020

On the eighth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, reiterate our calls on the government of Laos to reveal his fate and whereabouts, and to investigate all allegations of enforced disappearances in the country to bring those responsible to justice in fair trials.

The government’s ongoing failure to thoroughly, independently, and impartially investigate the cases of Sombath and other alleged victims of enforced disappearance is compounded by its total lack of commitment to address this issue. Continue reading “After eight years, civil society worldwide demands the government establish and reveal Sombath’s fate and whereabouts”

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.”

UN member states must highlight Laos’s severely restrictive civic space environment at its upcoming UN human rights review

Forum Asia: 17 January 2020

  • “Establish a new commission tasked with carrying out a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation aimed at determining the fate or whereabouts of human rights defender Sombath Somphone.”

Your Excellency,

As you will be aware, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) will face its third review under the UN’s UPR mechanism on 21 January 2020.

Following its last review in 2015, the government of Lao PDR committed to reassess the policy framework and restrictions on domestic and international civil society organisations and facilitate an enabling environment for them; to fully respect and ensure freedom of expression by revising legislation; to ensure freedom of assembly in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and to investigate individual cases such as the enforced disappearance of human rights defender Sombath Somphone. Continue reading “UN member states must highlight Laos’s severely restrictive civic space environment at its upcoming UN human rights review”

Civil society groups urge Laos, Thailand to investigate enforced disappearances, reveal fate of Sombath Somphone and Od Sayavong

15 December 2019: On the seventh anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, urge the Lao and Thai governments to investigate enforced disappearances, and demand Vientiane finally reveal Sombath’s whereabouts and ensure justice for him and his family.

Considering the Lao police’s protracted failure to effectively investigate Sombath’s enforced disappearance, a new independent and impartial investigative body tasked with determining Sombath’s fate and whereabouts should be established without delay. The new body should have the authority to seek and receive international technical assistance in order to conduct a professional, independent, impartial, and effective investigation in accordance with international standards.

Sombath was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street of the Lao capital, Vientiane, on the evening of 15 December 2012. Footage from a CCTV camera showed that Sombath’s vehicle was stopped at the police checkpoint and that, within minutes, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove him away in the presence of police officers. CCTV footage also showed an unknown individual driving Sombath’s vehicle away from the city center. The presence of police officers at Sombath’s abduction and their failure to intervene strongly indicates state agents’ participation in Sombath’s enforced disappearance. Continue reading “Civil society groups urge Laos, Thailand to investigate enforced disappearances, reveal fate of Sombath Somphone and Od Sayavong”

UN experts concerned by disappearance of Lao human rights defender

OHCHR: 01 October 2019

…the Government of Lao PDR has yet to take meaningful action to resolve the case of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was disappeared in 2012, despite repeated commitments to do so.

GENEVA (1 October 2019) – UN human rights experts* have expressed serious concerns about the disappearance of a prominent Lao human rights defender, Od Sayavong, who went missing in Thailand just months after meeting a UN special rapporteur.

They urged the Thai Government to clarify the steps taken to locate Od, who had been recognized as a refugee by the UN refugee agency, and to ensure the security of other vulnerable Lao human rights defenders in Bangkok.

Od was last seen at his home in Bangkok on 26 August 2019. On 2 September, a colleague reported his disappearance to the Thai police. Authorities have not provided information as to his whereabouts. Continue reading “UN experts concerned by disappearance of Lao human rights defender”

Australia: Press Laos to Protect Rights

Human Rights Watch: 12 August 2019

The Lao government has never disclosed the fate or whereabouts of a prominent civil society leader, Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012.

Dialogue Should Address Enforced Disappearances, Free Speech

The Australian government should press the Lao government to take serious steps to remedy its poor human rights record at the 6th Australia-Laos human rights dialogue on August 12, 2019, in Canberra, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a June submission, Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to use the dialogue to focus on enforced disappearances of Lao and Thai nationals, and to press the Lao government to end its systematic restrictions on the rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Other key human rights concerns include abusive drug detention centers, repression of minority religious groups, and violence against women and girls.

“Australia is one of the few countries that has a human rights dialogue with Laos and so should make the most of this opportunity to press for change,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Laos has a horrific human rights record, which is often overlooked.”

Laos is a single-party state that bans opposition political parties and sharply curtails independent groups. The government strictly monitors and controls all television, radio, and publications. It has taken further legislative measures to strengthen censorship and government control.

The Lao government has never disclosed the fate or whereabouts of a prominent civil society leader, Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012.

Australia should also press the government to investigate the disappearance of three Thai political activists who were abducted in Vientiane in December 2018. DNA samples from mutilated bodies found in the Mekong River matched two of the missing activists, Kraidej Luelert and Chatchan Buphawan, raising grave concerns for the third activist, Surachai Danwattananusorn, who remains missing. The two bodies had been disemboweled and stuffed with concrete.

“Australia should break the silence that surrounds Laos’ suppression of fundamental human rights and play a key role in encouraging international concern and pressure for reform,” Robertson said.

Related Content: Submission to Australia Laos Human Right Dialogue, June 2019

UN member states must continue to ask “Where is Sombath?” during human rights review

FIDH: 18 July 2019

(Paris) United Nations (UN) member states must use the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos to continue to demand the Lao government determine the fate or whereabouts of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) urged today.

The two organizations made the call in their joint submission for the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos, which is scheduled to be held in January-February 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Sombath’s case is emblematic of the pervasive culture of impunity for human rights violations in Laos and the climate of fear that has been gripping local civil society. The international community must continue to press the Lao government to deliver justice for Sombath and his family and hold those responsible for his enforced disappearance accountable.” Debbie Stothard., FIDH Secretary-General

In January 2015, 10 UN member states (Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK) recommended the Lao government conduct an adequate investigation into Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance.

In July 2018, the government said it had been “trying very hard” to investigate Sombath’s disappearance. However, this statement has been contradicted by the government’s ongoing refusal to accept international assistance in conducting the probe and to provide any details about the progress of its investigation.

Sombath Somphone was last seen on the evening of 15 December 2012 in Vientiane. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that police stopped Sombath’s car at a police post. Within minutes after being stopped, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. Analysis of the CCTV footage showed that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers, a fact that supports a finding of government complicity.

“The UPR represents a rare opportunity for all UN member states to engage the Lao government on human rights issues. The international community should be relentless in its calls on the Lao government to address the serious and systematic human rights violations that continue to occur in the country.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President

The joint FIDH-LMHR submission focuses on the following human rights issues in Laos since the second UPR cycle, which began in January 2015: freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of association; enforced disappearances; torture; prison conditions; freedom of religion or belief; the right to participate in the design and implementation of infrastructure and investment projects; and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

UN Special Rapporteur speaks out for Sombath

76. The Government should finally allow a meaningful investigation of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a widely admired civil society leader, last seen getting into a vehicle after being stopped at a police checkpoint in 2012.

91. Allowing civil rights sores to fester is not in anyone’s interests. The Government should demonstrate good faith by inviting the Working Group on enforced disappearances to investigate cases including that of Sombath Somphone, and it should remedy the injustices suffered by the Sekong Province detainees.

From the final report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights .

AEPF Calls on EU and UK for action, not just words

The Lao government’s continued silence and obfuscation of the facts around Sombath’s enforced disappearance have subjected his family to six years of fear and uncertainty over his fate and whereabouts, which remain unknown to this day.

European development partners have committed approximately USD 550 million in support of the implementation of the Government’s 8th NSEDP (2016-2020). This represents over 30 percent of all the ODA received by the Lao Government to date. Nearly all of the European ODA is provided in grants.

…it would appear that the ODA support given by the EU and other donors continues and that formally there have not been moves to suspend or change the flow of ODA in spite of human rights abuses by the Lao PDR.

…as a member of the multi-lateral institutions, including The European Union, that are donors to Laos, The United Kingdom should actively engage in, and if necessary initiate, discussions to suspend the flow of ODA to the Lao PDR.

Excerpts from letter to the Rt. Hon. Mark Field, Member of UK Parliament, from Andy Rutherford, member of International Organising Committee, Asia Europe People’s Forum

“If he can disappear, you can too. Keep quiet.”

The second issue is the situation of civil society, again which I take as illustrative. In general, the government assumes that civil society is an extension of itself. In other words, it is there to implement its own policies. It is not there to provide any independent analysis. It is not there to stimulate reflection, discussion, consultation, participation.

And the result is that there is actually an extraordinary amount of fear throughout the society, in terms of free expression.

But this is something of a paradox that I want to mention. It is true from what I know that large numbers of people are not prosecuted for political crimes. They are not imprisoned, they are not tortured, and this is impressive.

What explains it, however, as far as I can tell, is that the government builds upon the particularities of the Lao personality, the Lao culture, and uses very particular examples to send a message that resonates widely through the society.

So you pick on a particular civil society leader, and you disappear him, and you say no more. The message is loud and clear. This man, Somphone, was preaching a very, I shouldn’t say it…now because he was clearly a very inspirational character, but a revolutionary, he certainly wasn’t. An anti-government man, he wasn’t, but a man who wanted to encourage consultations in accordance with Buddhist and other local traditions, he was.

So the message was, if he can disappear, you can too. Keep quiet.

From the press conference of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Phillip Alston, in Vientiane, 28 March 2019. Video of the full conference can be seen here, and the report and other materials are available here.