UN member states must continue to ask “Where is Sombath?” during human rights review

FIDH: 18 July 2019

(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.

The two organizations made the call in their joint submission for the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos, which is scheduled to be held in January-February 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland.

“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.

Laos: EU must demand government address key issues during human rights dialogue

FIDH: 07 March 2019

(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.

Human Rights Groups Applaud Tough UN Review of ‘Highly Repressive’ Laos

RFA: 02 August 2018

Lao agricultural expert Sombath Somphone, who went missing in December 2012, in 2005 file photo.

By Paul Eckert

A harsh review by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) of Laos’ rights record should prompt the international community to press the one-party state to make major political and legal reforms, human rights groups said on Thursday.

The Geneva-based UNHRC held talks with Laos on July 11-12 in that Swiss city and on July 26 issued a tough review of the Southeast Asian country’s compliance with its legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was the first review since Laos became a state party to the Covenant in 2009.

“The outcome of the United Nations’ assessment of the human rights situation in Laos highlighted the country’s highly repressive environment and the government’s failure to respect virtually all civil and political rights,” said a statement by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the affiliated Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR). Continue reading “Human Rights Groups Applaud Tough UN Review of ‘Highly Repressive’ Laos”

Government slanders Sombath Somphone, issues “blanket denials” on enforced disappearances during rights review

FIDH: 18 July 2018

(Paris) During a review by a United Nations (UN) body, the Lao government slandered disappeared civil society leader Sombath Somphone and failed to provide any details concerning its purported investigation into his enforced disappearance, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today.

On 11-12 July 2018, FIDH and LMHR attended the first-ever examination of the situation of civil and political rights in Laos by the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) in Geneva, Switzerland. Continue reading “Government slanders Sombath Somphone, issues “blanket denials” on enforced disappearances during rights review”

UN Committee Set to Examine Civil and Political Rights in Laos

RFA: 14 June 2018

A U.N. review of the rights record of Laos scheduled for July should look closely into the condition of civil and political rights in the Southeast Asian country, focusing on reports in recent years of forced disappearances and harsh prison terms handed out to critics of the country’s government, two Paris-based rights groups say.

Numerous violations of citizens’ rights in the one-party communist state have been documented and must finally be addressed, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization The Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said in a joint statement released this week.

“The upcoming review of the disastrous state of civil and political rights in Laos is a rare opportunity to put the spotlight on the repressive actions of the authoritarian government in Vientiane,” Debbie Stothard, FIDH Secretary-General, said in the June 11 statement. Continue reading “UN Committee Set to Examine Civil and Political Rights in Laos”

Serious human rights violations under scrutiny in landmark UN review

FIDH & LMHR: 11 June 2018

(Paris)The situation of civil and political rights in Laos remains dire, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today, ahead of a landmark review by a United Nations (UN) body. FIDH and LMHR also released a ‘shadow report’ that documents the numerous and serious violations of civil and political rights committed by the authorities in the one-party state.

“The upcoming review of the disastrous state of civil and political rights in Laos is a rare opportunity to put the spotlight on the repressive actions of the authoritarian government in Vientiane. It’s critical that the international community pays close attention to this review and uses its key outcomes to recalibrate its policies vis-à-vis Laos,” said FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard.

The situation of civil and political rights in Laos will be examined by the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) for the first time on 11-12 July 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland. The CCPR monitors state parties’ compliance with their legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Laos became a state party to the ICCPR in 2009. Continue reading “Serious human rights violations under scrutiny in landmark UN review”

Activists Pressure Lao Government on Missing Civil Society Leader

Voice of America: 15 December 2017

Five years ago, Shui-Meng Ng and her husband, Sombath Somphone, were driving their car through Vientiane. It was on that day that he disappeared.

Security camera footage at a checkpoint showed police officers stopping his Jeep. Sombath, a well-known civil society leader, is shown getting out of his vehicle. Moments later, a lone motorcyclist arrives, parks his bike, and drives away in the Jeep. Then an unmarked white pickup pulls up and Sombath gets in the truck, which drives away.

Activists say the police closed-circuit television shows Sombath being arrested at the police checkpoint. Shui-Meng has not heard from her husband since.

“Today, Sombath is still missing,” she told VOA’s Lao Service. “I have no choice, I cannot remain silent. I cannot let the … work of Sombath and his dreams and hope for building a better society in Laos” be forgotten. Continue reading “Activists Pressure Lao Government on Missing Civil Society Leader”

New Decree on Associations is the last nail in the coffin for civil society

FIDH/LMHR: 17 November 2017

(Paris) International donors must urge the Lao government to scrap new legislation that imposes severe restrictions on civil society, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. The new Decree on Associations, signed by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on 11 August 2017, came into effect on 15 November 2017. The decree replaces a previous Decree on Associations enacted in 2009 and applies to all domestic associations, commonly known as Non-Profit Associations (NPAs).

FIDH and LMHR made their call ahead of the Round Table Implementation Meeting (RTIM), an annual conference attended by Lao government officials and representatives from development partners. The RTIM is scheduled to be held in Pakse, Laos, on 22-23 November 2017.

“By imposing pervasive controls and restrictions on local associations in an already repressive environment, the new decree is the last nail in the coffin for Lao civil society. Aid agencies and international donors must demand Vientiane repeal the decree and replace it with legislation that respects the rights to freedom of expression and association in accordance with international standards.” Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President

Continue reading “New Decree on Associations is the last nail in the coffin for civil society”

UN body says detention of government critics is “arbitrary” and urges their release

FIDH: 07 September 2017

FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights and its member organization for Laos Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)

A United Nations (UN) body has demanded that Lao authorities immediately and unconditionally release three government critics who were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms, according to information received by FIDH.

“The UN opinion that declares the detention of the three peaceful government critics arbitrary certifies that Laos has zero respect for its international human rights obligations. The Lao government should take note that it can no longer hide its repressive actions from the international community and immediately release all dissidents,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.

Continue reading “UN body says detention of government critics is “arbitrary” and urges their release”

Renewed Focus on Lao Activist on International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances

RFA: 30 August 2017

A display to mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in the Thai capital Bangkok, Dec. 30, 2017 (Note: The event was about enforced disappearance in Thailand, and did not address Sombath or Laos specifically.)

Supporters of Sombath Somphone renewed their focus on the missing rural development activist on Wednesday, using the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances to press Laos to solve the nearly five-year-old mystery of his disappearance.

Video footage show’s Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012. In the video Sombath is herded into a white truck and taken away, and a man dressed in white returns and drives off in his Jeep.

Soon after he was kidnapped, police promised to investigate, but Lao authorities soon backtracked, saying they could no longer confirm whether the man in the video footage was actually Sombath. Continue reading “Renewed Focus on Lao Activist on International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances”