A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines. Photo courtesy his family.
The government of Laos should take the opportunity to pledge concrete measures to address its pervasive human rights problems as the United Nations Human Rights Council reviews that country’s record, rights groups say.
Laos will appear for the country’s second Universal Periodic Review on Tuesday at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) says that this represents an important opportunity for Laos to strengthen its commitment to human rights at home, by guaranteeing the freedom and protection of civil society through official provisions.
In a June 2014 submission to the council, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the enforced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms to expression and assembly, the denial of labor rights and abusive drug detention centers.
“The lack of progress in the disappearance of a leading activist is sadly emblematic of the Lao government’s failure take action on a wide range of serious human rights problems,” said Philippe Dam, acting Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “UN member countries should make clear their dissatisfaction with Laos’ inaction and insist upon genuine reform.”
There are serious risks facing HRDs, according to ISHR. The climate of fear and intimidation is such that sensitive topics are avoided. Human rights defenders prefer to be known as ‘community workers’ and are afraid of reprisals if they are associated with regional and international human rights organisations. There are at least nine unresolved cases of enforced disappearance, following the arbitrary detention by Laos’s security forces, in November 2009, of activists in various locations across the country.
The International Federation for Human Rights and Laos Movement for Human Rights expressed their deep disappointment that Laos completely ignored the recommendations made by the European Union regarding enforced disappearances, and says that Laos ‘’has failed to respect the international treaties that it has signed or ratified, as well as several provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’’
Defamation and misinformation are criminal offences, carrying lengthy prison terms and even the possibility of execution. Due to high levels of official and self-censorship, legal cases are in fact extremely rare.
According to the United States Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013, authorities may prohibit the dissemination of materials the Ministry of Information and Culture deemed indecent, subversive of ‘national culture’, or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to the national culture may face a fine or imprisonment for up to one year.
Defenders working on land and environment rights are particularly threatened. Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders from 2008-2014, expressed her concern about cases of land rights defenders in the country, who remain at risk of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and enforced disappearance as a result of exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of association and of expression.
Civil society activists told Human Rights Watch that the Sombath case has had a severe chilling effect on activism in Laos, which has made them fear raising the case with the authorities.
Despite having accepted relevant recommendations during its previous UPR, Laos signed in 2008, but has not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which rights groups say Laos must do. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the government has ratified, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution.
Lao authorities’ have not made progress in the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader and Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone in Vientiane in December 2012. Although closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage captured him being apprehended at a police checkpoint, Lao authorities have recently claimed someone other than Sombath was shown being driven away. They continue to refuse offers of technical assistance from governments to assess the video footage or provide other investigative support.
Human Rights Watch says that Laos is obligated under international human rights law to prevent and remedy any enforced disappearances. Despite widespread calls for accountability, both regionally and internationally, questions about the enforced disappearances are met with denials or silence by senior officials of the Lao government.
ISHR recommends that the Government of Laos immediately establish an independent commission to carry out a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, to make his fate and whereabouts known, and to bring those responsible to justice.
The Constitution of Laos guarantees the right to freedom of expression. In practice, however, this right is heavily restricted. The government has long controlled all newspapers, television and radio in the country, and bars media reporting if it considers it contrary to undefined “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity.” On January 27th 2012, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism ordered Ounkeo Souksavanh, host of the country’s only call-in radio show, ‘Wao Kao’, to cancel his program. Ounkeo had discussed sensitive topics with callers to the show, including government land seizures.
The Penal Code prohibits organizing or participating in protest marches or demonstrations ‘with the intention of causing social disorder’. Those who do organize protests, or who attempt to do so, can receive sentences of up to five years in prison.
In September 2014, the Lao government adopted a draconian Internet decree that significantly restricts freedom of expression online using provisions that go well beyond internationally accepted limits on free speech contained in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Laos ratified in 2009. The law sharply limits the types of information that can be shared — including “false information” about the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, or any information the government finds “distorts truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions and organizations.”
Workers are prohibited from establishing or joining a trade union of their own choosing since all unions must be part of the government-controlled Lao Federation of Trade Unions. They are also unable to exercise their right to strike because of restrictions in labor law and authorities’ proven willingness to forcibly break up workers’ protests.
Laos has also tightened government control in the operating guidelines for the Non-Profit Associations (NPAs), local civil society organizations, as well as the decree overseeing the activities of international NGOs. These increase requirements for notification and permission to receive or spend international development funds; limitations on areas of permitted work; and limitations or prohibitions on any speech or activities deemed to offend government-defined notions of peace and social order. The result will be greater bureaucratic scrutiny over programs and budgets of non-governmental groups working in development and other grassroots projects in the country, Human Rights Watch says.
The Lao government maintains a system of drug detention centers where detainees are held for months and sometimes years without a court ruling, judicial oversight, or an appeal mechanism. Human Rights Watch found that detainees at the Somsanga center outside Vientiane received little effective medical treatment, and were instead locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds, and subjected to beatings.
“The Lao government has a long record of using enforced disappearances, oppressive laws, and long prison terms to silence its critics,” Dam said. “Governments should use the opportunity of UN review of Laos to make clear they stand with ordinary citizens against the abuses by unaccountable Lao officials.”
The Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, human rights defenders, independence of judges and lawyers, and torture received reports of alleged torture by detention personnel, denial of legal aid for detained human rights defenders and refusal of their requests to meet with family and lawyers.
In its last Universal Periodic Review in May 2010, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) received a total of eight recommendations with respect to human rights defenders (HRDs), five regarding the right to the freedom of assembly and expression, and three regarding the free activities and safety of civil society, in particular calls to free activists detained owing to their participation in peaceful demonstrations. Laos accepted only one of these recommendations, committing to allow media and civil society to undertake education, advocacy, monitoring, and reporting of human rights issues.
Laos also has not taken significant steps to meet commitments the government made during its first Universal Periodic Review in 2010, Human Rights Watch said. The government has failed to end severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and the media, association and peaceful assembly.
ISHR says that Laos should develop and enact specific laws and policies to recognise and protect the work of HRDs, facilitate the establishment of non-governmental organisations and give full force and effect to the international Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at the national level. Laos should demonstrate strong, high-level political support for HRDs through public statements by its officials which recognize their important and legitimate work.
Additionally, Laos should combat impunity by undertaking a thorough, impartial, and effective investigation of all allegations of enforced disappearances and all violations against HRDs, and ensure the prosecution of perpetrators and access to effective remedies for victims.
The government should also address the on-going repression of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, to ensure protection of all human rights defenders and members of civil society. Specifically, Laos should remove restrictions in the Penal Code on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, should decriminalize defamation and misinformation, and should repeal the law which restricts online communications.
Finally, ISHR recommends that Laos ensure the creation of a strong, independent National Human Rights Institution, which adheres to the Paris Principles and includes a focal point for HRDs.
Laos is ranked in 171st place out of 180 in Reporter’s Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index.