No progress on human rights, EU told ahead of upcoming dialogue

FIDH-LogoFIDH-LMHR: 12 July 2022

The European Union (EU) must raise its concerns with the Lao government over the lack of progress in addressing long-standing human rights violations in Laos and urge authorities to comply with the country’s human rights obligations, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. The two organizations made the call ahead of the 11th EU-Laos Human Rights Dialogue, which will be held on 13 July 2022 in Brussels.

“The human rights dialogue is one of the few opportunities for the EU to raise its concerns with Vientiane. It must not be another opportunity that allows the government to engage in dishonest statements and avoid any pledges to make concrete and measurable human rights commitments.” Adilur Rahman Khan, FIDH Secretary-General

In conjunction with their call, the two organizations released a briefing paper that provides a summary of human rights developments in Laos since the previous human rights dialogue, which was held remotely on 16 June 2021. The briefing paper documents key developments on the following issues: 1) political prisoners; 2) failure to cooperate with United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms; 3) enforced disappearances; 4) violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief; 5) human rights impacts of infrastructure and investment projects; 6) minimum wage increase; and 7) the COVID-19 response.

“As the 10-year anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone approaches, it is crucial that the EU keeps pressing the Lao government for answers about his fate and whereabouts. The chilling effect of Sombath’s disappearance haunts Lao civil society to this day and, until truth and justice are established, fear and oppression will prevail.” Elise Lyfoung, LMHR President

|Press contacts FIDH: Ms. Eva Canan (French, English) – Tel: +33648059157 (Paris)

Shui Meng Ng publishes memoir of husband, disappeared Laotian human rights defender Sombath Somphone

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

It was with a mix of profound sadness and deep admiration that I read Shui Meng Ng’s recently published biography of her husband, Silencing of a Laotian Son: The Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone. Sadness because this December will mark 10 years since Sombath was disappeared, 10 years since CCTV footage showed his jeep being stopped by police and his being bundled into a truck before it speeds away. As Shui Meng writes in the book, these were “the last images I have seen of Sombath since.”

Admiration because in all of that time Shui Meng Ng has never stopped pressing for answers, never stopped fighting to prevent Sombath from being forgotten about and never stopped believing that despite the huge power imbalance, she can hold the Laotian authorities to account. I invited Shui Meng to the Dublin Platform in 2013, ten months after Sombath’s disappearance, and the words she spoke then epitomise how she has lived the last decade:

Despite the concerns for safety of myself and my family, Sombath’s disappearance has taught me that silence is a form of defeat. I cannot accept such defeat and I cannot ignore such violations of my husband’s rights.

This type of courage, and commitment to do what is right, is apparent in great supply in the pages of Silencing of a Laotian Son which details Sombath’s journey from a childhood of poverty and hardship, a year of which was spent as a refugee on the Thai side of Laos border, to academic excellence in the USA.

Above all though what shines through is Sombath’s absolute dedication to improving the lives of his fellow Laotians. Following the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975, it would have been easy for him to settle and make his life in the US, where he was studying at the time, but he chose to return to Laos in the 1980s to try to introduce new farming and land management techniques that he had developed through his studies. Shui Meng remembers that when Sombath first arrived in the US, he was astounded by the abundance of food in American households, and “food security was one of the reasons why, later in life, Sombath chose to study agronomy. His aim was to find ways to reduce food insecurity for poor farming households in Laos.”

Sadly Sombath’s efforts were blocked at every turn by the Laotian government who were suspicious of him because he studied in the USA. Ironically, when he was in the USA, the FBI were interested in him because he wanted to go home to Communist Laos. This absurd situation is what happens when politics is placed above human rights. Sombath persevered and founded the first indigenous non-profit in Lao PDR providing training to rural communities to foster development on their own terms.

It is believed that Sombath was finally disappeared as a result of his involvement in the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in November 2012, a biennial conference to promote exchange between civil society in Asia and Europe. It was the first time that an international civil society event was held in Lao PDR, and during it Sombath spoke on the importance of government dialogue with civil society, and listened as fellow Laotians spoke out about illegal land seizures. Some of those who spoke out were reportedly threatened by officials and Sombath, unsurprisingly, wanted an investigation into those threats. He vanished a few weeks later.

My predecessors have written a number of times to the Laotian authorities on Sombath but only received repeated claims of ignorance about his fate. In February of last year I joined with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and two other Special Rapporteurs in writing once again to the Laotian government asking why no further updates on the investigation had been provided to Shui Meng or published since shortly after his disappearance. We also asked why the authorities had not met with Shui Meng since 2017, despite their assurances that they would regularly provide her with updates. The authorities have yet to respond.

In Sombath’s disappearance, Laos has lost one of its best. In writing this book, Shui Meng has ensured that Sombath can continue to serve as an inspiration to future generations of Laotians and to human rights defenders everywhere.

Laos: Nine years on, civil society worldwide still demands answers on Sombath’s enforced disappearance

FIDH: 15 December 2021

On the ninth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, reiterate our calls on the Lao government to determine his fate and whereabouts, and deliver justice to him and his family.

We condemn the Lao government’s ongoing failure to solve Sombath’s disappearance, and its refusal to provide any updates on his case. In previous years, the government made occasional statements to claim it was still investigating Sombath’s disappearance. However, over the past year a curtain of silence has fallen on Sombath’s case. The government’s last public remarks on Sombath’s case were made on 28 September 2020, during the UN (United Nations) Human Rights Council’s adoption of the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos. During that review, the government did not accept all five recommendations that called for an adequate investigation into Sombath’s enforced disappearance, despite stating that it recognized that “the search for missing Lao citizens, including Sombath Somphone, is the duty of the Lao government.”

On 5 February 2021, four UN Human Rights Council’s Special Procedure mandate holders wrote to the Lao government to reiterate their concern regarding the lack of progress in the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance. In their communication, the UN human rights experts noted an “absence of evidence to indicate that efforts have been made to further the search for his [Sombath’s] fate and whereabouts.” [1] To date, the government has not replied to this communication.

Even more troubling is the government’s ongoing failure to meet with Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng Ng, and provide her with any updates on his case since December 2017, despite her repeated requests. It is evident that the government’s protracted and deliberate silence is aimed at consigning the case of Sombath to oblivion.

Our organizations condemn the government’s inaction and silence, and remain steadfast in supporting Sombath’s family in its quest for truth and justice. Until Sombath’s fate and whereabouts are revealed, we will continue to demand the Lao government answer the question: “Where is Sombath?”

We also stand in solidarity with all the other victims of enforced disappearances in Laos, and we reiterate our demand that all cases be effectively investigated in accordance with international standards, the perpetrators of such serious crimes be identified and held accountable in fair trials, and victims be afforded an effective remedy and full reparations.

Enforced disappearance is a serious human rights violation and is unequivocally prohibited under international law. Relatives of people who are forcibly disappeared are themselves victims of enforced disappearance and have the right to an effective remedy for violations of international human rights law.

We are also extremely concerned at what appears to be a retreat by diplomats and donors in Laos from interventions to uphold and protect the rights of all people in Laos. We urge Laos’ donor and diplomatic community to continuously and publicly highlight to the Lao government the importance and urgency of meeting its human rights commitments and obligations.

Lastly, we urge the Lao government to ratify without further delay the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Laos signed in September 2008, and incorporate the Convention’s provisions into the national legal framework, implement them in practice, and recognize the Committee on Enforced Disappearance’s jurisdiction to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims or other states parties.

Background

Sombath Somphone 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.

Signed by:

1. Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma)
2. Amnesty International
3. ARTICLE 19
4. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
5. Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
6. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
7. Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
8. Asian Resource Foundation (ARF)
9. Association of Women for Awareness and Motivation (AWAM)
10. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM)
11. Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
12. Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
13. Center for Prisoners’ Rights
14. Centre for Civil and Political Rights
15. CETRI – Centre tricontinental
16. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
17. Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS)
18. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
19. Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF)
20. CSW
21. Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC)
22. FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
23. Focus on the Global South
24. Fortify Rights
25. Fresh Eyes
26. Hawai’i Center for Human Rights Research & Action
27. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)
28. Human Rights Watch
29. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
30. International Rivers
31. Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw)
32. Justice for Peace Foundation (JPF)
33. Karapatan Alliance Philippines
34. Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)
35. League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI)
36. Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN)
37. Manushya Foundation
38. MARUAH
39. Mekong Watch
40. Mother Nature Cambodia
41. Nonviolence International
42. Odhikar
43. People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD)
44. People’s Watch
45. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
46. Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity (PACTI)
47. Rotary Peace Fellowship Alumni Association (RPFAA)
48. Stiftung Asienhaus
49. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
50. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP)
51. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR)
52. The William Gomes Podcast
53. Transnational Institute
54. Union for Civil Liberty (UCL)
55. Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR)
56. Women’s Peace Network (WPN)
57. Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC)
58. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
59. World Rainforest Movement (WRM)

Individuals:

Prof. Anuradha Chenoy
Dr. David JH Blake, Independent scholar, UK
Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel, Access Now
Randy Arnst
William Nicholas Gomes

Australia: Press Laos to Respect Rights

Human Rights Watch:  08 December 2021

Shui-Meng Ng holds a picture of her husband, Sombath Somphone, the forcibly disappeared Lao activist, following a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, December 12, 2018. © 2018 ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images

Bilateral Dialogue Should Address Enforced Disappearances
(Sydney) – The Australian government should press the Laogovernment to take concrete steps to improve its poor human rights record at the seventh Australia-Laos Human Rights Dialogue on December 9, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a November submission, Human Rights Watch specifically urged the Australian government to use the dialogue to focus on enforced disappearances of Lao and Thai nationals.

“The Lao government’s suppression of fundamental rights and lack of accountability for abuses stand out in just about every respect,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia should use its leverage as a major development partner of Laos to press for specific actions to bring significant rights improvements.”

Laos is obligated under international human rights law to prevent, investigate, and remedy any enforced disappearance, the government’s denial of the detention or the whereabouts of a person taken into custody. The Lao government has responded to regional and international calls for accountability for enforced disappearances with denial or silence.

There has been no progress on at least 10 cases of enforced disappearance in Laos, Human Rights Watch said. The case of a prominent Lao civil society activist, Sombath Somphone, is emblematic of the government’s failure to act in line with its international obligations. Despite CCTV camera footage showing Sombath being taken away from a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane on December 15, 2012, Lao authorities have repeatedly denied that the government took Sombath into custody or provided any information on his fate or whereabouts.

There has also been no progress in the investigation of the enforced disappearance of five Thai nationals in Laos: Ittiphon Sukpaen, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Chatcharn Buppawan, and Kraidej Luelert.

“The annual Australia-Laos human rights dialogue shouldn’t be the only forum during the year where human rights are discussed,” Pearson said. “Concerns about human rights should also be raised privately and publicly at the highest level, so that Australian officials can convey the critical role human rights and the rule of law play in its partnership with Laos.”

Remarks by Shui Meng Ng at 13th Asia-Europe People’s Forum

17 May 2021

Good day to all. We are gathered together again for another AEPF, the 13th AEPF. This is the 4th time I have been asked to speak at the opening of an AEPF Meeting. While I am grateful that the organizing committee has once more given me the space and time to speak at such an important forum for development activists and practitioners, I must admit, it does not give me much pleasure to give another commemoration talk about my husband, Sombath Somphone, who was disappeared on 15 December 2012, two months after he co-charied the 9th AEPF in Vientiane.

Nine years have passed since Sombath was abducted right in front of a police post in Vientiane, and with evidence of his abduction by uniformed police recorded on CCTV. Yet the Lao government has kept up the charade and denied any knowledge of what happened to Sombath, while at the same time refusing to conduct any thorough and transparent investigation. Over the past 9 years, I have travelled the globe giving countless talks about Sombath – who he is, his life and his work, and his enforced disappearance. I have knocked on the doors of world leaders, representatives of United Nations organizations, and appealed to almost all human rights agencies to take up Sombath’s case and pressure the Lao government and officialdom to give me answers as to what happened to Sombath and to return him safely to me and my family. After 9 years of struggle and campaign to get truth and justice, I still have gotten no answers of Sombath’s whereabouts or his fate. All I get from the Lao officialdom is a wall of silence and lies.

In fact with the passing of time the official smear campaign against Sombath has become more viscious. Whenever confronted with demand for answers of Sombath’s disappearance at international and UN meetings, the Lao officials regularly mouthed the official line of their continued investigations, while at the same time casting aspersions of Sombath’s character by accusing him of amassing wealth though dubious means. Even though such baseless lies gained little credibility among people who know Sombath and are aware of the background and circumstances of the case, these lies nonetheless cause me great pain and anger.

I am enraged by the fact that the perpetrators of such a heinous crime and violation of Sombath’s and my rights could continue to get away with such impunity. I am enraged at the futility of international laws and pressure, against authoritarian governments who could disregard international standards and the rule of law.

Yet, despite my disappointment of the lack of progress on Sombath’s case, and my anger at the injustice caused to my husband and my family, I also know that to give up on fighting for truth and justice is not an option. To give up is to give in to what the perpetrators most want; and to lose hope is to lose part of my dignity, my humanity, and my love for Sombath. So I soldier on against all odds and continue my fight for truth and justice for Sombath and continue my plea for solidarity and support for the satisfactory resolution of Sombath’s case.

This is why I have overcome my despondency and agree to address you at this 13th Asia-Europe People’s Forum. I believe that is also what Sombath wants.

Many of the AEPF participants and development activists already know of Sombath and his work, and many of you, especially those in the Asia region, have also worked with him to promote a more equitable, just, and sustainable development that places people, and not profits, at the center of the development agenda.

Sombath’s development vision and aspiration did not come from theory but are learned from direct experience of growing up in a poor rural family and working in communities all over Laos.  His ideas and approaches are not shaped by any political or development imperatives from outside or from above; they have been learned from consultative partnerships and practical experimentation with communities and families, and especially with young people with whom he placed the greatest hope for real change. Sombath always urged the young people to remain mindful of their traditional values and wisdom even as global forces grow stronger. Development is good, he used to say, but for development to be healthy, it “must come from within.” That was what made Sombath’s work so authentic and so trusted by those he worked with.

Now, even though Sombath’s vision and voice has been silenced for more than 9 years, I am struck at how relevant and important they still are. He had warned that past and ongoing development and political mistakes are the root causes of many of the current political, social, economic, and religious fissures across many of our societies, and why we are now living in such a destabilized world where the social fabric of our communities have become torn by hate and distrust.

Nine years ago, at the 9th AEPF Opening speech, he said, “our development model is not balanced, not connected, and definitely not holistic. We focus too much on economic growth and ignore its negative impacts on the social, environmental, and spiritual dimensions. This unbalanced development model is the chief cause of inequality, injustice, financial meltdown, global warming, climate change, loss of bio-diversity, and even loss of our humanity and spirituality. …We are blinded by the power of money and let the corporations rule the world and even over-ride the power of the state. Ordinary people, and civil society, have very little say in all this”

What Sombath believed and worked for to change all his life is becoming even more urgent today, as we face the global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we are now forced to work-from-home, meet through zoom, have our children learn online, close our businesses, and lose our jobs, we need to think about how we can survive this crisis as families, as communities, as societies, and as a globalized world.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more convenient for authoritarian regimes to use the pandemic as an opportunity to disregard people’s democratic rights and escalate political and physical repressions and violence against their opponents.  These autocrats know well that with the domestic challenges posed by the pandemic, international attention is less focused on their violations and they can get away, just as we are witnessing happening in Myanmar, in Palestine, and in Kashmir.

What should we do under such circumstances? As Sombath would often say, “we must think outside the box”. Indeed the old strategies may not be enough for the challenges we face today. Sombath may not be here to brainstorm or share his ideas with you, but he always believe in the collective wisdom and experience of sincere and committed people who havespent their lives working on the ground and know the kinds of challenges people face.

This 13th AEFP will provide opportunities for policy makers, dedicated practitioners, and ordinary people to share and debate and put forth new strategies to address and overcome thechallenges we face today.  Indeed through strategic networking, and solidarity of purpose between the people of Asia and Europe, we will strengthen our collective resistance against the trampling of our rights, and the political, social, economic, environmental, and public health injustice we face today.

I close by once more by thanking the organizers of the 13th AEPF and I wishing you great success in your deliberations.

Thank you.

New Joint Allegation Letter on Sombath Somphone

Four UN Special Rapporteurs had sent a new Joint Allegation Letter to the Government of the Lao PDR on 05 February 2021. Having received no response in 60 days, the letter has now been made public:

Mandates of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

REFERENCE:
AL LAO 1/2021

5 February 2021

Excellency,

We have the honour to address you in our capacities as Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 45/3, 43/4, 41/12 and 43/16.

In this connection, we would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government new information we have received concerning the alleged enforced disappearance of human rights defender Mr. Sombath Somphone since 2012.

Mr. Sombath Somphone is a human rights defender who has advocated against land-grabbing and defended the rights of those whose land has been illegally seized. Mr. Somphone is also the founder of the first indigenous non-profit association established in Laos PDR, the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), which focuses on education and capacity building for communities to achieve social and economic development with a focus on environmental issues. The work of PADETC has received both national and international recognition and in 2001, Mr. Somphone was awarded the Human Resource Development Award for his contribution to empowering communities in rural Laos from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

Ms. Shui Meng Ng is a woman human rights defender and the wife of Mr. Somphone. Since his disappearance, she has advocated for the government to thoroughly investigate his disappearance and other cases of enforced disappearance, and has spoken on the affects felt by the families of the disappeared and the lack of effective redress.

Mr. Somphone’s disappearance has been the subject of two previous urgent appeals sent by a number of Special Procedures mandate holders to your Excellency’s Government, sent on 20 December 2012 (LAO 3/2012) and 9 December 2013 (LAO 2/2013) respectively. We thank your Excellency’s Governments for its replies to LAO 3/2012 dated 3 January 2013, 25 March 2013 and 10 June 2013, and its response to LAO 2/2013 dated 7 January 2014. However, we remain concerned that no further updates regarding the investigation into Mr. Somphone’s disappearance have either been publicly disclosed or shared with his family.

The disappearance of a human rights defender and Lao PDR national in Thailand is also an issue that a number of Special Procedures mandate holders previously raised with your Excellency’s Government in a communication sent on 11 December 2020 (LAO 4/2020).

We would also like to recall that the case of Mr. Sombath Somphone has been considered by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, through its humanitarian individual case procedure, and remains outstanding since it was first transmitted to your Excellency’s Government on 11 September 2013.

According to the information received:

On the evening of 15 December 2012, Mr. Somphone was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane whilst driving home. The police escorted Mr. Somphone to a police building on the roadside. Some time later, a man in civilian clothing on a motorcycle parked outside the police building and drove Mr. Somphone’s vehicle away, leaving the motorcycle on the roadside. Shortly following this, a truck with flashing lights parked outside the police building. Two men dressed in civilian clothing reportedly pushed Mr Somphone into the back of the vehicle, where there were other persons sitting, and drove away.

The following day, Ms. Shui Meng Ng went to a police station to report her husband missing. Whilst there, Ms. Ng Shui Meng was shown CCTV footage of her husband’s abduction, which she took a video of on her mobile phone. In the days following his reported disappearance, Mr Somphone’s family repeatedly visited hospitals in the local area, and on 20 December 2012, the Government announced that it had launched an investigation into the disappearance of Mr Somphone.

However, a few days after his alleged disappearance, Mr. Somphone was reportedly sighted inside a police compound, and his vehicle parked on the compound’s premises. Two days following this sighting, Mr. Somphone was then reportedly transferred to a military camp outside Vientiane and then seven days later it is reported that he was moved once again to an unknown location.

Prior to his disappearance, Mr. Somphone participated in and helped with the organisation of the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in November 2012, a biennial conference aimed at promoting dialogue and collaboration between civil society organisations in Asia and Europe. Mr. Somphone was co-chair of the National Organizing Committee for the Forum, which was the first international civil society event to be held in Lao PDR, and attended by delegates from over 40 countries. Mr. Somphone delivered a speech during the Forum, in which he emphasised the importance of cooperation and open dialogue between civil society organisations and actors, the Government, and corporations involved in large-scale development projects. During the Forum, delegates from different regions of Lao PDR gave testimonies on the illegal seizure of their land. Following the event, a number of the individuals who spoke on this topic during the Forum reportedly received threats from officials. At the time of his disappearance, Mr. Somphone was allegedly involved in addressing these threats and calling for an investigation into them.

The government have reportedly denied Ms. Shui Meng Ng’s repeated requests since 2012 to provide information or updates on its investigation into her husband’s disappearance, or his possible fate. The government has denied any involvement in the abduction, despite the CCTV footage of the abduction, which shows that police officers were present. Ms. Shui Meng Ng has also not received any official documentation from the government regarding her husband’s disappearance. Despite alleged assurances from government officials that they would meet with her and provide regular updates on the investigation into his disappearance, Ms. Shui Meng Ng last met with the Lao PDR authorities in December 2017 and has not been provided with any updates since.

Without prejudging the accuracy of these allegations, we wish to express our deepest concern with regard to the alleged enforced disappearance of Mr. Somphone eight years ago, and the absence of evidence to indicate that efforts have been made to further the search for his fate and whereabouts, and progress the investigation into his disappearance and bringing the perpetrators to justice. We reiterate that enforced disappearance is a serious violation of human rights and is unequivocally prohibited under international law. We also wish to express our utmost concern regarding the information which would indicate that police officers were allegedly present during the abduction and that the abduction took place at a police checkpoint.

The timing of Mr. Somphone’s alleged abduction in 2012, shortly preceded by his organization of and participation in an emblematic international conference of civil society organisations, the first of its kind to be held in the country, is particularly concerning as it appears to be an attempt to incite fear amongst other human rights defenders for carrying out their legitimate work, and also preclude similar civil society events from taking place due to fear of the possible consequences. Whilst we are aware that some factions of your Excellency’s Government were involved in the planning of this conference, we remain concerned that this does not eliminate the possibility that other government factions or government officials may have been involved or complicit in his alleged enforced disappearance. We are further concerned that Mr. Somphone’s enforced disappearance, as a nationally and internationally recognised human rights defender and development worker, is an attempt to deter other human rights defenders in Lao PDR from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, and their fundamental freedoms.

We remain seriously concerned by the alleged inaction of your Excellency’s Government to meet with Ms. Shui Meng Ng, despite her repeated requests, and provide her with information and relevant documentation regarding the enforced disappearance of her husband and the status of the investigation into his disappearance in the eight years since he was abducted. We are concerned that as a result of such inaction on the part of your Excellency’s Government, Ms. Shui Meng Ng and her family have been denied adequate redress and compensation.

Finally, we wish to reiterate our concern in relation to reports of repeated cases of alleged enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, in Laos PDR and in neighbouring countries. We are concerned that such alleged abductions and enforced disappearances, in violation of international human rights law, are being carried out in response to their legitimate and peaceful efforts to further human rights and fundamental freedoms in Laos PDR. We reiterate that enforced disappearance is a serious violation of human rights which may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and unequivocally prohibited under international law.

In connection with the above alleged facts and concerns, please refer to the Annex on Reference to international human rights law attached to this letter, which cites international human rights instruments and standards relevant to these allegations.

As it is our responsibility, under the mandates provided to us by the Human Rights Council, to seek to clarify all cases brought to our attention, we would be grateful for the observations of your Excellency’s Government on the following matters:

1.     Please provide any additional information and any comment you may have on the above-mentioned allegations.

2.     Please provide the details, and where available the results, of any investigation and judicial or other inquiries carried out in relation to the alleged enforced disappearance of Mr. Somphone. If no such investigation or inquiries have been carried out, please provide an explanation.

3.     In your response to a communication sent by a number of Special Procedures mandate holders to your Excellency’s Government, dated 30 December 2013, reference is made to findings of an investigation, which were shared with the media. Please provide the details of these findings, and any relevant findings related to Mr. Somphone’s disappearance since.

4.     Please provide information as to the reasoning for allegedly denying Ms. Shui Meng Ng access to relevant documentation relating to the alleged enforced disappearance of her husband, and updates as to the progress of any investigation into his abduction.

5.     Please also indicate what measures have been taken to ensure that human rights defenders, journalists, activists and other civil society actors are able to carry out their legitimate work in a safe and enabling environment in Lao PDR, without fear of threats or acts of intimidation and harassment of any sort.

We would appreciate receiving a response within 60 days. Passed this delay, this communication and any response received from your Excellency’s Government will be made public via the communications reporting website. They will also subsequently be made available in the usual report to be presented to the Human Rights Council.

While awaiting a reply, we urge that all necessary interim measures be taken to halt the alleged violations and prevent their re-occurrence and in the event that the investigations support or suggest the allegations to be correct, to ensure the accountability of any person(s) responsible for the alleged violations.

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of our highest consideration.

Tae-Ung Baik
Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

Irene Khan
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Clement Nyaletsossi Voule
Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

Mary Lawlor
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

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”