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”

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