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

DFAT: 02 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lao-Australia HR Dialogue: ’Development’ eclipses Human Rights

Regrettably, an opportunity to advance human rights in Laos has instead resulted in yet another aid project.

Indications leading up to the latest Lao-Australia Human Dialogue were encouraging. In the 2015 Universal Periodic Review, Australia filed four recommendations to Laos on the death penalty, the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone,  internet restrictions, and constraints on civil society in Laos. Following the HR dialogue in Canberra that same year, Richard Andrews, the First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) promised continued pressure on these same issues.

More recently, consultations were held with various groups in Vientiane, including INGOs and NPAs. Detailed submissions were made by Human Rights Watch, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, and others. The Australian Embassy in Laos also encouraged others to submit additional inputs.

The government delegation from Australia included high-level officials, two of whom met with Ng Shui Meng, spouse of Sombath Somphone, who requested they ask for further information about Sombath’s whereabouts and the investigation into his disappearance, which the Lao government claims is continuing, even though it has given no updates in over four years. Continue reading “Lao-Australia HR Dialogue: ’Development’ eclipses Human Rights”

ASEAN MPs Ask Australia to Pressurize Laos on Human Rights

Latin America Herald Tribune: 18 July 2017

BANGKOK – Lawmakers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged Australia to pressurize Laos to respect human rights on Monday.

Representatives of the two countries are set to meet for a human rights dialogue on Tuesday and Wednesday in Vientiane, the Laotian capital.

“The human rights situation in Laos continues to be abysmal. Since Sombath’s disappearance, the space for independent civil society in the country – already one of the most repressive in the region – has narrowed considerably. Meanwhile, the public as a whole remains deeply fearful of raising sensitive issues,” Charles Santiago, Malaysian MP and president of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said in a statement.

Continue reading “ASEAN MPs Ask Australia to Pressurize Laos on Human Rights”

Laos: No Progress on Rights

HRW: 17 July 2017

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

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

Restrictions on civil and political rights in Laos include draconian controls over freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly. The lack of fair trials of criminal suspects, widespread judicial corruption, and entrenched impunity for human rights violations are continuing problems, Human Rights Watch said. Continue reading “Laos: No Progress on Rights”

Australia must tackle ‘dire’ situation in human rights talks with Laos – NGOs

Asia Correspondent: 17 July 2017

SET to enter the fifth round of human rights talks with Laos on Tuesday, civil society groups have called upon the Australian government to criticise a lack of progress regarding basic rights and freedoms in the one-party Southeast Asian nation.

The Australia-Laos Human Rights Dialogue is set to be held in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on July 18 and 19, and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) reports to have received numerous submissions from local civil society organisations.

Australia is one of only two countries which have regular bilateral dialogue on human rights issues with the tiny communist state of Laos. Coincidentally, this year the two countries mark 65 years of diplomatic relations. The most recent Dialogue was held in Canberra in 2015.

A statement from the Australian embassy in Vientiane earlier this year highlighted “Laos’ relationship with Australia is the country’s longest unbroken diplomatic relationship at ambassador level.” Australia is also home to a sizeable Laotian community, many of whom came as refugees. Continue reading “Australia must tackle ‘dire’ situation in human rights talks with Laos – NGOs”

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

APHR: 17 July 2017

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

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

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

Australia promises continued pressure

Australia continues to raise concern with Laos about the disappearance of Mr Sombath Somphone, and the case continues to figure prominently in bilateral discussions with Laos.

…Australia further pressed Laos to conclude an urgent and credible investigation intoMr Sombath’s disappearance, emphasising pressure will remain on Laos unless the case is transparently and credibly solved.

From a letter regarding the 2015 Lao-Australia Human Rights Dialogue from Richard Andrews, Assistant First Secretary, Southeast Asia Mainland and Regional Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

The next such dialogue will take place in Vientiane on July 18th, and be led by the head of DFAT’s human rights division. The Lao government has not released any information on the case in in over four years: The need for continued pressure remains undiminished.

Those wishing to provide inputs for this dialogue may send them to Ms. Sophie Wilkinson, Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy in Vientiane: [email protected]

Australia promises continued pressure

Australian-FlagAt the fourth Australian-Laos Human Rights Dialogue in Canberra on 5 March, Australia further pressed Laos to conclude an urgent and credible investigation into Mr Sombath’s disappearance, emphasising pressure will remain on Laos unless the case is transparently and credibly resolved. Australia also underlined the need for Laos to respond in a considered manner to recommendations made by Australia and other countries at the recent United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), including on Mr Sombath’s disappearance and the constrained operating environment for civil society in Laos. Australia will continue to pursue this matter…

Richard Andrews, First Assistant Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in a letter to The Sombath Initiative, responding to an earlier letter to Julie Bishop, Australian Foreign Minister. Despite the Lao government’s continued claims it is more concerned than anybody, a related article in the Vientiane Times makes no mention of Sombath

Australia-Laos rights dialogue: More than just rhetoric needed

The Interpreter: 13 March 2015

For many Australians, Laos is a scenic, off-the-beaten path, holiday destination for adventurous travellers.

Lao Embassy-Bangkok-2013-01

Relatively few know that it’s also a repressive one-party state with a long record of restricting basic rights, and imprisoning or forcibly disappearing critics or citizens who dare to form groups or hold protests without government permission.

Last week, Australia had a chance to throw light on Laos’ darker side when on 5 March, Canberra hosted officials from Vientiane for the fourth bilateral human rights dialogue. The dialogue, held in Australia for the first time, is part of Canberra’s assistance to the Lao Government, intended to improve its human rights record. However, given the intensifying crackdown on fundamental rights, the Lao Government’s commitment to reform appears dubious at best.

To ensure that this dialogue doesn’t become an exercise in empty rhetoric, the Australian Government should work with its Lao counterparts to set concrete measurable benchmarks for reform, and publicly commit to them. Continue reading “Australia-Laos rights dialogue: More than just rhetoric needed”

Australian Parliament Calls for Credible Investigation

header-logo-printOn 26 March 2014, the Australian Senate approved a motion calling on the Lao Government to:

…undertake an immediate and credible investigation of Mr Somphone’s disappearance, and willingly cooperate with the international community, including the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance.

The motion was introduced by Senator Christine Milne from Tasmania and Leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Green Party, and passed with the full support of all parties.

The full motion can be seen on the Parliament of Australia website, or in PDF format.

Continue reading “Australian Parliament Calls for Credible Investigation”