Four UN Special Rapporteurs had sent a new Joint Allegation Letter to the Government of the Lao PDR on 05 February 2021. Having received no response in 60 days, the letter has now been made public:
Mandates of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
AL LAO 1/2021
5 February 2021
We have the honour to address you in our capacities as Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 45/3, 43/4, 41/12 and 43/16.
In this connection, we would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government new information we have received concerning the alleged enforced disappearance of human rights defender Mr. Sombath Somphone since 2012.
Mr. Sombath Somphone is a human rights defender who has advocated against land-grabbing and defended the rights of those whose land has been illegally seized. Mr. Somphone is also the founder of the first indigenous non-profit association established in Laos PDR, the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), which focuses on education and capacity building for communities to achieve social and economic development with a focus on environmental issues. The work of PADETC has received both national and international recognition and in 2001, Mr. Somphone was awarded the Human Resource Development Award for his contribution to empowering communities in rural Laos from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
Ms. Shui Meng Ng is a woman human rights defender and the wife of Mr. Somphone. Since his disappearance, she has advocated for the government to thoroughly investigate his disappearance and other cases of enforced disappearance, and has spoken on the affects felt by the families of the disappeared and the lack of effective redress.
Mr. Somphone’s disappearance has been the subject of two previous urgent appeals sent by a number of Special Procedures mandate holders to your Excellency’s Government, sent on 20 December 2012 (LAO 3/2012) and 9 December 2013 (LAO 2/2013) respectively. We thank your Excellency’s Governments for its replies to LAO 3/2012 dated 3 January 2013, 25 March 2013 and 10 June 2013, and its response to LAO 2/2013 dated 7 January 2014. However, we remain concerned that no further updates regarding the investigation into Mr. Somphone’s disappearance have either been publicly disclosed or shared with his family.
The disappearance of a human rights defender and Lao PDR national in Thailand is also an issue that a number of Special Procedures mandate holders previously raised with your Excellency’s Government in a communication sent on 11 December 2020 (LAO 4/2020).
We would also like to recall that the case of Mr. Sombath Somphone has been considered by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, through its humanitarian individual case procedure, and remains outstanding since it was first transmitted to your Excellency’s Government on 11 September 2013.
According to the information received:
On the evening of 15 December 2012, Mr. Somphone was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane whilst driving home. The police escorted Mr. Somphone to a police building on the roadside. Some time later, a man in civilian clothing on a motorcycle parked outside the police building and drove Mr. Somphone’s vehicle away, leaving the motorcycle on the roadside. Shortly following this, a truck with flashing lights parked outside the police building. Two men dressed in civilian clothing reportedly pushed Mr Somphone into the back of the vehicle, where there were other persons sitting, and drove away.
The following day, Ms. Shui Meng Ng went to a police station to report her husband missing. Whilst there, Ms. Ng Shui Meng was shown CCTV footage of her husband’s abduction, which she took a video of on her mobile phone. In the days following his reported disappearance, Mr Somphone’s family repeatedly visited hospitals in the local area, and on 20 December 2012, the Government announced that it had launched an investigation into the disappearance of Mr Somphone.
However, a few days after his alleged disappearance, Mr. Somphone was reportedly sighted inside a police compound, and his vehicle parked on the compound’s premises. Two days following this sighting, Mr. Somphone was then reportedly transferred to a military camp outside Vientiane and then seven days later it is reported that he was moved once again to an unknown location.
Prior to his disappearance, Mr. Somphone participated in and helped with the organisation of the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in November 2012, a biennial conference aimed at promoting dialogue and collaboration between civil society organisations in Asia and Europe. Mr. Somphone was co-chair of the National Organizing Committee for the Forum, which was the first international civil society event to be held in Lao PDR, and attended by delegates from over 40 countries. Mr. Somphone delivered a speech during the Forum, in which he emphasised the importance of cooperation and open dialogue between civil society organisations and actors, the Government, and corporations involved in large-scale development projects. During the Forum, delegates from different regions of Lao PDR gave testimonies on the illegal seizure of their land. Following the event, a number of the individuals who spoke on this topic during the Forum reportedly received threats from officials. At the time of his disappearance, Mr. Somphone was allegedly involved in addressing these threats and calling for an investigation into them.
The government have reportedly denied Ms. Shui Meng Ng’s repeated requests since 2012 to provide information or updates on its investigation into her husband’s disappearance, or his possible fate. The government has denied any involvement in the abduction, despite the CCTV footage of the abduction, which shows that police officers were present. Ms. Shui Meng Ng has also not received any official documentation from the government regarding her husband’s disappearance. Despite alleged assurances from government officials that they would meet with her and provide regular updates on the investigation into his disappearance, Ms. Shui Meng Ng last met with the Lao PDR authorities in December 2017 and has not been provided with any updates since.
Without prejudging the accuracy of these allegations, we wish to express our deepest concern with regard to the alleged enforced disappearance of Mr. Somphone eight years ago, and the absence of evidence to indicate that efforts have been made to further the search for his fate and whereabouts, and progress the investigation into his disappearance and bringing the perpetrators to justice. We reiterate that enforced disappearance is a serious violation of human rights and is unequivocally prohibited under international law. We also wish to express our utmost concern regarding the information which would indicate that police officers were allegedly present during the abduction and that the abduction took place at a police checkpoint.
The timing of Mr. Somphone’s alleged abduction in 2012, shortly preceded by his organization of and participation in an emblematic international conference of civil society organisations, the first of its kind to be held in the country, is particularly concerning as it appears to be an attempt to incite fear amongst other human rights defenders for carrying out their legitimate work, and also preclude similar civil society events from taking place due to fear of the possible consequences. Whilst we are aware that some factions of your Excellency’s Government were involved in the planning of this conference, we remain concerned that this does not eliminate the possibility that other government factions or government officials may have been involved or complicit in his alleged enforced disappearance. We are further concerned that Mr. Somphone’s enforced disappearance, as a nationally and internationally recognised human rights defender and development worker, is an attempt to deter other human rights defenders in Lao PDR from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, and their fundamental freedoms.
We remain seriously concerned by the alleged inaction of your Excellency’s Government to meet with Ms. Shui Meng Ng, despite her repeated requests, and provide her with information and relevant documentation regarding the enforced disappearance of her husband and the status of the investigation into his disappearance in the eight years since he was abducted. We are concerned that as a result of such inaction on the part of your Excellency’s Government, Ms. Shui Meng Ng and her family have been denied adequate redress and compensation.
Finally, we wish to reiterate our concern in relation to reports of repeated cases of alleged enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, in Laos PDR and in neighbouring countries. We are concerned that such alleged abductions and enforced disappearances, in violation of international human rights law, are being carried out in response to their legitimate and peaceful efforts to further human rights and fundamental freedoms in Laos PDR. We reiterate that enforced disappearance is a serious violation of human rights which may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and unequivocally prohibited under international law.
In connection with the above alleged facts and concerns, please refer to the Annex on Reference to international human rights law attached to this letter, which cites international human rights instruments and standards relevant to these allegations.
As it is our responsibility, under the mandates provided to us by the Human Rights Council, to seek to clarify all cases brought to our attention, we would be grateful for the observations of your Excellency’s Government on the following matters:
1. Please provide any additional information and any comment you may have on the above-mentioned allegations.
2. Please provide the details, and where available the results, of any investigation and judicial or other inquiries carried out in relation to the alleged enforced disappearance of Mr. Somphone. If no such investigation or inquiries have been carried out, please provide an explanation.
3. In your response to a communication sent by a number of Special Procedures mandate holders to your Excellency’s Government, dated 30 December 2013, reference is made to findings of an investigation, which were shared with the media. Please provide the details of these findings, and any relevant findings related to Mr. Somphone’s disappearance since.
4. Please provide information as to the reasoning for allegedly denying Ms. Shui Meng Ng access to relevant documentation relating to the alleged enforced disappearance of her husband, and updates as to the progress of any investigation into his abduction.
5. Please also indicate what measures have been taken to ensure that human rights defenders, journalists, activists and other civil society actors are able to carry out their legitimate work in a safe and enabling environment in Lao PDR, without fear of threats or acts of intimidation and harassment of any sort.
We would appreciate receiving a response within 60 days. Passed this delay, this communication and any response received from your Excellency’s Government will be made public via the communications reporting website. They will also subsequently be made available in the usual report to be presented to the Human Rights Council.
While awaiting a reply, we urge that all necessary interim measures be taken to halt the alleged violations and prevent their re-occurrence and in the event that the investigations support or suggest the allegations to be correct, to ensure the accountability of any person(s) responsible for the alleged violations.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of our highest consideration.
Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
Clement Nyaletsossi Voule
Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders