Ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned civil society organizations and individuals, renew calls on the Lao government to determine his fate and whereabouts and deliver justice, truth, and reparation to his family. We deplore the Lao authorities’ repeated failure to act on their human rights obligations to thoroughly investigate Sombath’s disappearance and provide adequate, effective, and prompt reparation for Sombath and his family over the past decade.
Since Sombath, a pioneer in community-based development and youth empowerment, was abducted from a busy street in Vientiane on 15 December 2012, numerous United Nations (UN) member states and human rights monitoring mechanisms have repeatedly expressed their concern over his enforced disappearance and urged the Lao government to conduct a prompt and effective investigation into this grave human rights violation and crime under international law. Continue reading “After 10 years, civil society worldwide is still asking: “Where is Sombath?””
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
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.”  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.
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.
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)
Prof. Anuradha Chenoy Dr. David JH Blake, Independent scholar, UK Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel, Access Now Randy Arnst William Nicholas Gomes
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.
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.
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.
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.”
(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.
“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.
(Paris) The European Union (EU) must demand the Lao government release detained government critics, investigate all cases of enforced disappearances, and provide adequate compensation to victims of land confiscation and survivors of a recent dam disaster, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. FIDH and LMHR made the call on the occasion of the 9th EU-Laos human rights dialogue, which is held in Vientiane today. In conjunction with their call, the two organizations released a briefing paper that provides an update on the human rights situation in Laos since the previous dialogue, held in March 2018 in Vientiane, Laos. The briefing paper documents developments on the following issues: 1) arbitrary detentions; 2) enforced disappearances; 3) violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief; 4) the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam disaster; and 5) land rights
The consistent lack of progress on human rights in Laos should compel Brussels to be more vocal in its interactions with the government. The EU should obtain concrete commitments from the Lao government, such as the immediate and unconditional release of all those subjected to politically-motivated detentions. The EU should not fall into the trap of allowing the Lao government to downgrade the dialogue into an empty ritual.” Debbie Stothard, FIDH Secretary-General
At least 14 political prisoners remain incarcerated across the country. They include: Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad, and Lodkham Thammavong, who are serving prison sentences of up to 20 years for their peaceful criticism of the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations; pro-democracy activist Bounthanh Thammavong, a Laos-born Polish citizen, who is serving a four-year-and-nine-month prison sentence for a Facebook post in which he criticized the government’s policies and actions; and 10 villagers in Ban Yeup, Thateng District, Sekong Province, detained without trial since July 2017 for cutting down rubber trees to protest land confiscation. With regard to enforced disappearances, the fate or whereabouts of at least 14 individuals remain unknown. The 14 include: civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in Vientiane in December 2012; two women, Kingkeo Phongsely and Somchit, and seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit, and Sourigna, who were detained by security forces In November 2009; Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an eco-tourism business, who was abducted in Luang Namtha Province in January 2017; and Ittiphon Sukpaen, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, and Surachai Danwattananusorn, three Thai monarchy critics living in exile in Laos who disappeared in June 2016, July 2017, and December 2018 respectively. Lao authorities have failed to conduct effective and impartial investigations into all of these cases.
The collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in Attapeu Province in July 2018 exposed the government’s slow, inadequate, and non-transparent response to the disaster. Despite the apparent severity and magnitude of the disaster, the government immediately sought to downplay the death toll and tried to block independent reporting about the disaster. In late January 2019, authorities eventually revealed that 49 people had been confirmed dead and 22 were still missing. However, activists and local villagers believe the death toll could be significantly higher, as the fate of hundreds of residents remains undetermined. Compensation and assistance awarded to survivors and families of the victims of the dam collapse has been thoroughly inadequate. In addition, despite the formation of two government-appointed investigation committees, no accountability for the disaster has yet been established. Reports also emerged of a lack of transparency and potential corruption on the part of the authorities in connection with the relief effort, particularly in relation to the procurement and construction of ‘temporary houses’ for survivors.
“The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse shows that investment and infrastructure projects in Laos can often have disastrous consequences for local communities because of the government’s lack of transparency and accountability. Until Vientiane takes bold steps towards key institutional and legal reforms, the EU and its member states should carefully reconsider their economic involvement in Laos.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President
Concerns also remain over the ongoing lack of compensation for communities whose land has been confiscated by the authorities to make way for the construction of the 417km high-speed railway connecting the Laos-China border town of Boten to Vientiane. In November 2018, it was reported that 94% of the land required for the railway had been acquired and that the project was more than 40% complete. However, as of January 2019 – more than two years after the start of the project – many of the 4,400 families affected by the railway construction had not received compensation for their loss of land, livelihood, and income.
Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone disappeared on the evening of 15 December 2012, after being stopped at a police checkpoint on a busy street of Vientiane, Laos. Footage from a CCTV camera near the police checkpoint showed that unknown individuals forced Sombath into another vehicle and drove away in the presence of police officers. Sombath has never been seen again. His fate or whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
Six years after Sombath Somphone’s disappearance, what has been done to safely return Sombath? What are the regional implications of his disappearance? What are the next steps?
A panel of four distinguished speakers will answer these questions and provide an update on the quest for truth and justice for Sombath Somphone’s disappearance.
Ms. Shui-Meng Ng: Spouse of Sombath Somphone
Mr. Edmund Bon: Malaysia’ s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
Ms. Premrudee Daoroung: Project SEVANA South-East Asia Coordinator
Mr. Charles Santiago: Malaysian Member of Parliament (via Skype)
Moderated by FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)