Australia: Press Laos to Respect Rights

Human Rights Watch:  08 December 2021

Shui-Meng Ng holds a picture of her husband, Sombath Somphone, the forcibly disappeared Lao activist, following a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, December 12, 2018. © 2018 ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images

Bilateral Dialogue Should Address Enforced Disappearances
(Sydney) – The Australian government should press the Laogovernment to take concrete steps to improve its poor human rights record at the seventh Australia-Laos Human Rights Dialogue on December 9, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a November submission, Human Rights Watch specifically urged the Australian government to use the dialogue to focus on enforced disappearances of Lao and Thai nationals.

“The Lao government’s suppression of fundamental rights and lack of accountability for abuses stand out in just about every respect,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia should use its leverage as a major development partner of Laos to press for specific actions to bring significant rights improvements.”

Laos is obligated under international human rights law to prevent, investigate, and remedy any enforced disappearance, the government’s denial of the detention or the whereabouts of a person taken into custody. The Lao government has responded to regional and international calls for accountability for enforced disappearances with denial or silence.

There has been no progress on at least 10 cases of enforced disappearance in Laos, Human Rights Watch said. The case of a prominent Lao civil society activist, Sombath Somphone, is emblematic of the government’s failure to act in line with its international obligations. Despite CCTV camera footage showing Sombath being taken away from a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane on December 15, 2012, Lao authorities have repeatedly denied that the government took Sombath into custody or provided any information on his fate or whereabouts.

There has also been no progress in the investigation of the enforced disappearance of five Thai nationals in Laos: Ittiphon Sukpaen, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Chatcharn Buppawan, and Kraidej Luelert.

“The annual Australia-Laos human rights dialogue shouldn’t be the only forum during the year where human rights are discussed,” Pearson said. “Concerns about human rights should also be raised privately and publicly at the highest level, so that Australian officials can convey the critical role human rights and the rule of law play in its partnership with Laos.”

Stopping Enforced Disappearances: Where is Sombath Somphone?

https://youtu.be/1HtQ-MSvDww

On 17 December 2019 a panel discussion was held at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok, Thailand. Panelists included:

  • Angkhana Neelapaijit: Director, Justice for Peace Foundation; Magsaysay Prize Award winner 2019, and wife of Somchai Neelapaijit who was enforcibly disappeared in 2004
  • Ng Shui Meng: Wife of Sombath Somphone, who was enforcibly disappeared in 2012
  • Katia Chirizzi: Deputy Director, Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Southeast Asia
  • Phil Robertson: Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch

Click the link above for video of the event.

Invitation to Press Conference: Stopping Enforced Disappearances; Where is Sombath Somphone?

Date:     December 17, 2019

Time:    10:30 am

Place:   Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT, directions at www.fccthai.com)

Note: English-Thai interpretation will be provided

 

  • Angkhana Neelapaijit: Director, Justice for Peace Foundation; Magsaysay Prize Award winner 2019, and wife of Somchai Neelapaijit who was enforcibly disappeared in 2004
  • Ng Shui Meng: Wife of Sombath Somphone, who was enforcibly disappeared in 2012
  • Katia Chirizzi: Deputy Director, Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Southeast Asia
  • Phil Robertson: Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch
  • Moderator: Shalmali Guttal

Continue reading “Invitation to Press Conference: Stopping Enforced Disappearances; Where is Sombath Somphone?”

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

Search For Husband Now at a ‘Dead End’

Radio Free Asia: 28 May 2019

More than six years after her husband’s disappearance at a Lao police checkpoint, the wife of rural development advocate Sombath Somphone says her search for answers to her husband’s fate has now reached a dead end.

“In talking about pushing the case forward, I have come to a real dead end,” Ng Shui Meng told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking in an interview during this year’s International Week of the Disappeared.

“I have heard from the EU ambassador, the U.K. ambassador, and other ambassadors of Western countries that when they raise the case of Sombath with the Lao government, they are told that they are still investigating,” Ng said.

Now, Lao authorities say they are also investigating unspecified “assets” reportedly held by Sombath, Ng said.

“But instead of talking to me to get any kind of answers about what assets Sombath has, they say they are investigating. And they are talking to the ambassadors based in Vientiane rather than talking to me,” she said.

“The police don’t talk to me. The Lao government and the authorities don’t talk to me,” Ng said.

Forced disappearance

Sombath Somphone disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.

Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.

His decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices helped him win the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos, and later the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.

Though authorities have denied any responsibility, Sombath’s abduction is widely acknowledged to be an enforced disappearance—the arrest or detention of an individual by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the person or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty.

Tough questioning

In a July 11-12 meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Committee held in Geneva, Switzerland, Lao government representatives evaded tough questioning in the case, drawing  attention instead to what delegate Bounkeut Sangsomsak called previously unreported assets held by Sombath, including parcels of land and property in the Lao capital Vientiane worth from 1 to 2 million U.S. dollars.

“Where did all this money come from?” Bounkeut asked.

In a statement, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said the Lao government is “still engaged in a systematic cover-up of their direct responsibility for the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone.”

“At every step of the way, powerful people in Vientiane have sought to frustrate the efforts of Sombath’s family, and by the international community, to find out what the government did to Sombath.”

“These authorities have also played games with Sombath’s property, denying official documents to the family that would allow them to take care of Sombath’s personal and financial arrangements,” Robertson added.

“The way Laos has treated this whole situation is despicable, and the Lao government deserves utter condemnation for their actions.”

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.

Sombath Somphone Five Years On

This press conference was held at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand on 07 December 2017. Speakers included:

Ng Shui Meng: Former Deputy Representative for UNICEF Laos 2000 to 2004; wife of Sombath Somphone

Charles Santiago: Member of Parliament, Selangor Malaysia; Chairperson, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

Anne-Sophie Gindroz: Former Country Director of Helvetas; author of “Laos, the Silent Repression”

Moderator: Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch Asia Division

The full video can be seen here.

Laos: 5 Years Since Civil Society Leader’s ‘Disappearance’

Human Rights Watch: 15 December 2017

Disclose Sombath Somphone’s Fate or Whereabouts

The government of Laos should immediately disclose the fate or whereabouts of the prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone who was forcibly disappeared in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012, Human Rights Watch said today.

Sombath Somphone is still missing five years after he was forcibly disappeared in Vientiane, Laos. “Five years on, Sombath’s ‘disappearance’ highlights the glaring problems of enforced disappearance, widespread rights violations, and the culture of impunity protecting government officials in Laos,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government needs to end its cover-up and explain what happened to Sombath.”

Sombath, the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre, received Southeast Asia’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005. Security camera footage shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep at 6:03 p.m. on December 15, 2012, and police taking him into the Thadeua police post. Shortly afterward, an unidentified motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. A few minutes later, a truck with flashing lights stopped at the police post. Two people got out of the truck, took Sombath into the vehicle, then drove off. The authorities later denied any knowledge of Sombath being taken into custody. He has not been seen since.

Five years on, Sombath’s ‘disappearance’ highlights the glaring problems of enforced disappearance, widespread rights violations, and the culture of impunity protecting government officials in Laos. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director

At a news conference in Bangkok on December 7, 2017, Shui-Meng Ng, Sombath’s wife, publicly revealed that people she declined to name had seen Sombath at a police holding facility in Vientiane on the night of December 15, a number of hours after he was publicly seen at the police checkpoint. She said that his jeep was seen at the parking lot of that facility on the same evening.

This newly public information demonstrates the inadequacy of the official investigations into Sombath’s disappearance and the contours of a cover-up by Lao authorities. The authorities have repeatedly dismissed concerns raised by Sombath’s family, foreign governments, and human rights groups about whether the government investigation was serious.

Shui-Meng Ng told Human Rights Watch:

Five years on, we are sadly no closer to finding Sombath than we were in the week after he was taken from us. The only thing that has progressed over that time is the Lao government’s cover-up, and the wall of denial and delays it has constructed to buy time. While disheartened, the friends of Sombath all around the world will never give up demanding answers.

Laos has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution. Disappearances are a continuing offense that cause anguish and suffering for the victim’s family members.

“Sombath’s ‘disappearance’ will be a stain on the Lao government’s reputation until his fate is explained and those responsible are fairly prosecuted and punished,” Robertson said. “Donor governments, UN agencies, and multilateral organizations should keep raising concerns with Lao leaders until there are credible answers about Sombath’s fate.”

5 years after disappearance of Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, 122 groups ask, ‘Where is Sombath?’

Interaksyon: 15 December 2017

MANILA, Philippines — More than a hundred civil society organizations have slammed the government of Laos for its “failure to independently, impartially, effectively, and transparently investigate” the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a social activist who worked to promote sustainable development for the rural poor, and return him to his family.

“The Lao government’s continued silence and obfuscation of the facts around Sombath’s enforced disappearance have subjected his family to five years of fear and uncertainty over his fate and whereabouts, which remain unknown to this day,” the groups said in a statement released Saturday, December 16.

Sombath, a 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, often called “Asia’s Nobel Prize,” disappeared the night of December 15, 2012. Continue reading “5 years after disappearance of Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, 122 groups ask, ‘Where is Sombath?’”

Open letter on repeal of decree on associations No. 238

International Commission of Jurists: 13 December 2017

H.E. Mr. Thongloun Sisoulith, Prime Minister

Prime Minister’s Office, Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic

 

H.E. Mr. Bounnhang Vorachith, President

President’s Office, Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic

 

H.E. Mr. Xaysi Santivong, Minister of Justice

Ministry of Justice, Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic\

 

13 December 2017

 

Dear H.E. Mr. Thongloun Sisoulith, H.E. Mr. Bounnhang Vorachith and H.E. Mr. Xaysi Santivong,

 

RE:      REPEAL OF DECREE ON ASSOCIATIONS No. 238 of 2017

 

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), The Centre for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR-Centre) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)  express deep alarm about the issuing and coming into force of the Decree on Associations (No. 238 of 2017) (‘the Decree’) in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Continue reading “Open letter on repeal of decree on associations No. 238”