ASEAN meeting should highlight disappeared Lao leader Sombath Somphone, denial of liberties, said human rights and advocacy groups at a press conference held today in Bangkok.
On the eve of the annual ASEAN leaders summit in Vientiane, the groups (Human Right Watch, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Civil Rights Defenders, Focus on the Global South, Mekong Watch and the ICJ) called upon the Lao PDR Government to commit to address its widespread violations of human rights, including instances of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.
Visiting world leaders have a unique opportunity to publicly raise human rights concerns during the ASEAN summit in Vientiane from September 6-8. They should press the Lao government to cease the abuses that have consistently placed Laos at the bottom of rights and development indexes measuring rights, press freedom, democracy, religious freedom, and economic transparency, the groups added.
At the event organized by The Sombath Initiative at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok, the groups also released a set of briefing papers on forcibly disappeared civil society leader Sombath Somphone (photo), Laos’ restrictions on democracy and human rights, lack freedom of expression, failure to meet human rights obligations, and impacts of foreign aid and investment.
“More than three and half years after he disappeared, the Lao government still has provided no clear answers to what happened to my husband, Sombath Somphone, who was taken away in truck at a police checkpoint in Vientiane,” said Shui Meng Ng, wife of Sombath and board member of The Sombath Initiative.
“President Obama, the United Nations, and ASEAN and its dialogue partners should urge the Lao Government to urgently resolve the case of Sombath’s enforced disappearance and return him safely to me and my family. They should also demand the Lao Government end enforced disappearances, so that the ordinary people of the country can respect their government rather than fear it.”
“The fact that the Lao PDR government’s last detailed report on the progress of the investigation was released over three years ago suggests the Lao authorities are not carrying out an effective investigation into this case as they are required to do under international law,” said Kingsley Abbott, a Senior International Legal Adviser with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
“It is not enough for the Lao government to simply keep asserting on the international stage that it is investigating this case. International law obliges Lao PDR authorities to conduct an investigation that is credible and effective, and provide regular updates on its progress including to Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng,” he added.
Basic civil and political rights are systematically denied in Laos, and government authorities move quickly to arbitrarily arrest those expressing critical views of the government, either in day to day life or more recently on-line.
In March 2016, police arrested three Lao migrant workers who had posted critical comments about the Lao government while they were working in Thailand, and continues to detain them arbitrarily. A Lao court also sentenced activist Bounthanh Khammavong in September 2015 to 4 years and 9 months in prison for posting critical comments on Facebook.
Laos also imposes onerous restrictions on the right to freedom of association that are incompatible with its human rights obligations.
The government strictly controls the registrations of organizations such as non-profit associations (NPAs), and closely monitors the work plans and budgets of NPAs that it does approve to operate.
Any person who dares to organize and operate an unsanctioned organization faces arrest and prosecution.
Workers are compelled to belong to the Lao Federation of Trade Unions and organizing unions outside that framework is illegal. At the village level, mass organizations controlled by the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party are often the only organizations operating.
Public protests or assemblies are strictly forbidden without government permission, and any efforts organize such events face immediate suppression by the police and security forces.
“Civil society in Laos remains under a hostile spotlight from the government, and UN rights officials have noted that there are few places in the world where they have encountered greater fear and intimidation among community organizations and NGOs,” said Walden Bello, former member of the Philippines Congress and Vice Chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
“Laos has now become one of the most rights repressing countries in ASEAN: leaders in the region and from around the world must stop looking the other way, and demand Vientiane end its asphyxiation of independent civil society,” he added.
Read the full text and quotes here: Laos-End to Human Rights Abuses-News-Press Releases-2016-ENG (in PDF)
Kingsley Abbott, ICJ Senior International Legal Adviser, t: +66 9 4470 1345, e: kingsley.abbott(a)icj.org