The inability of the Laos government to offer a credible explanation for the disappearance of prominent activist Sombath Somphone has again drawn unwanted headlines, with demands for donor nations to think twice before committing taxpayers dollars to the one-party Communist state.
The latest swipe comes from Amnesty International, which is raising Somphone’s plight on International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance. Somphone was last seen in police custody on December 15, but the authorities insist they have no knowledge of his whereabouts.
“The human rights group calls also on other countries to do more to demand that the civil society leader, a victim of enforced disappearance, is found and returned safely to his family,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, said.
The International Organising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) has released a letter written to top Lao leaders. In part, the letter reads:
Despite repeated appeals from his wife and many hundreds of individuals, numerous governments and organizations, and widespread media coverage, we conclude that the Lao government has yet to conduct an adequate investigation into Sombath’s disappearance or provide a satisfactory explanation for his abduction…
…We are of the opinion that the Lao Government is in breach of its human rights commitments, due to the enforced nature of Sombath’s disappearance, as it fails to ensure the safe return of Sombath and as restrictions on civil society continue.
As long as Sombath has not been returned safely to his family, many organisations and individuals are committed to continuing international activity and ensuring that his disappearance will dominate bi-‐lateral, multi-‐lateral and international discussions with and about Laos.
On December 15th 2012 Sombath Somphone disappeared, taken away in a truck by unknown persons after being stopped by police in the Lao capital, Vientiane. Nobody has seen or heard from him since.Today, March 25th 2013, is the 100th day since Sombath’s disappearance.
Despite sustained appeals from many hundreds of individuals and organizations and widespread, ongoing media coverage, the Lao government has yet to conduct a satisfactory investigation into Sombath’s disappearance or provided any explanation for his abduction. There have been repeated enquiries through diplomatic channels and two delegations of parliamentarians to Laos, one from ASEAN and one from Europe.
On the 6th February 2013 the European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution on ‘Laos: the case of Sombath Somphone’. The resolution formally calls on the EU to include Laos and the case of Sombath Somphone in its priorities for forthcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council.
In the absence of the safe return of Sombath to his family, many organisations and institutions and bodies outside Laos, are committed to beginning a new phase of international activity. The members of the International Organising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum are committed to this new phase of activity. There is a deep commitment that from today until Sombath is safely returned to his family that the continuing disappearance of Sombath would begin to preface or even dominate bi-lateral, multi-lateral and international discussions with and about Laos.
This could happen with discussion at the WTO, with the Asia Development Bank, at the UN Human Rights Council to name but a few instances. Even, if it is still necessary, in due course it could influence discussions about Lao PDR’s graduation from LDC status.
Whilst Sombath has not returned safely to his family, there will be a growing negative effect on foreign engagement and foreign investment in Laos at a time where Laos is deeply committed to developing stronger ties and links. In 2013 there is now a very real possibility that the credibility of Laos will be deeply tarnished with significant negative effects whilst Sombath is not returned safely to his family.
In addition to Sombath’s disappearance there are also concerns that there is an increasing perception that the ‘spaces’ for dialogue, discussion and debate on how to achieve more sustainable economic and social development in Laos are becoming constricted. The climate of positive and constructive dialogue that was a part of AEPF9 is felt to have dissipated. This is of great concern and there is a call for positive measures and actions to be taken by the Lao Government to enable a secure environment that encourages learning and reflection and provides space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate for people committed to Sustainable Development in Laos.
The International Oganising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum has issued a statement saying that due to the disappearance of Sombath Somphone and other recent developments “the legacy of the AEPF9 in Laos is in great jeopardy”
The 9th Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF9) took place from 16 to 19 October 2012 in Vientiane. Sombath Somphone was the co-chair of the Lao National Organising Committee and a key note speaker during the Opening Day. He also facilitated the production of the highly acclaimed ‘Happy Laos’ film which was shown at the closing of the Forum.
The AEPF in Vientiane was initially deemed a success, but subsequent events have led to a reassessment by the Internal Organising Committee (IOC). The latest statement by the IOC identifies four developments in Laos:
The ‘disappearance’ of Sombath Somphone on December 15th 2012
The expulsion of Anne-Sophie Grindroz, the Country Director of Helvetas.
An increasing perception that the ‘spaces’ for dialogue, discussion and debate on how to achieve more sustainable economic and social development in Laos are becoming constricted.
An increasing number of reports of harassment at the local level of participants in the AEPF9 who have been taking forward initiatives to promote sustainable development.
Due to these developments, the IOC is now of the view that…
The lived reality for many people in Laos today is in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of the Vientiane Declaration on Strengthening Partnership for Peace and Development agreed at the end of ASEM9.
The IOC statement concludes by calling upon the Government of Laos to sincerely and accountably take forward their commitments to enable space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate.
Statement of Rep. Walden Bello on the Preliminary findings of ASEAN Parliamentary Delegation to the Lao PDR on the disappearance of Sombath Somphone
We are members of a delegation of ASEAN parliamentarians that visited the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic to investigate the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, the prominent Lao leader of civil society from January 13 to 15. We went at the request of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF)
The delegation was assembled in 10 days’ time owing to the urgency of the matter. Despite the short notice, high officials of the Lao PDR met with us, and we are very grateful for this. We had a very frank exchange of views in a cordial atmosphere.
We told the officials we met with that the disappearance of Sombath is an ASEAN concern because Sombath is an ASEAN figure whose work has touched the lives of many people in Lao and other countries in ASEAN. His work on rural development was a model emulated throughout the region. Moreover, at a time when ASEAN is coming together as a real community in the eyes of the world, his disappearance reflects badly not only on Laos but on the whole ASEAN community.
The officials we met acknowledged that the disappearance of Sombath is a blow to the reputation of the Lao PDR and that it could not have come at a worse time, coming on the heels of the country’s joining the World Trade Organization and hosting the Asia-Europe Leaders Meeting (ASEM). They also all acknowledged that Sombat was an important civil society leader who has contributed much to Laos’ development working alongside government, with many of them saying they knew him personally. They also noted the special responsibility of the government to solve Mr. Sombath’s disappearance since the Lao PDR has just signed the Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, being the fourth country in Asia to do so.
One of the Lao leaders we met, Mr. Phoungsavath Boupha, President of the National Committee for Human Rights in the Office of the President, acknowledged that Sombath’s disappearance is not the first case of disappearance in Laos. He cited the case of the sister of the wife of the former ambassador of the Lao PDR to Indonesia who vanished five years ago and has not yet been found. We stressed to the officials we met that this case shows the importance of acting swiftly to find the disappeared, for the longer he or she is not located, the greater the chances that he will no longer surface. Continue reading “Statement of ASEAN delegation”