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. (more…)

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.

(more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)