The United Nations on Friday joined calls to the government of Laos to do everything in its power to locate a social activist who went missing last week, expressing concern that his disappearance might be tied to his work in human rights.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, the spokesperson for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Rupert Colville, said his organization was distressed “by what appears to be the enforced disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone,” the missing social worker.
“We are highly concerned for his safety and believe that his abduction may be related to his human rights work,” he added.
Sombath, 60, is the former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), a nongovernmental organization he founded in 1996 to promote education, training, and sustainable development.
The recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in the fields of education and development across Asia was last seen on the evening of Dec. 15 while driving home from the PADETC office in Vientiane.
Based on closed-circuit television footage, Sombath was taken to a roadside police station in the capital city Vientiane on Saturday night after the car he was driving was stopped by traffic police, a relative who wished to remain anonymous told RFA’s Lao Service earlier this week.
The footage, which relatives posted online on Wednesday, shows—according to the relative—a man arriving on a motorbike at the police station while Sombath is inside, then leaving and coming back with other men in a truck to pick him up. He did not appear to be coerced, though the truck clearly leaves in a hurry.
Police did not provide any explanation of who took him away or why he had been allowed to leave the station.
The Lao government has disavowed responsibility for Sombath’s disappearance and pledged to conduct an inquiry into the incident, but has suggested that the activist was kidnapped “because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business,” which his family members said was extremely unlikely.
The OHCHR asked the Lao government to work quickly to locate the missing activist.
“We welcome the government’s recent statement that a serious investigation is underway, and urge the authorities to do everything possible to ensure that Mr. Somphone is found safe and unharmed,” Colville said.
The UN statement followed a more accusatory one issued Thursday by the New York-based Human Rights Watch which said that the circumstances surrounding the case of Sombath’s disappearance “indicate that Lao authorities took him into custody, raising concerns for his safety.”
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that “Lao authorities should come clean on the enforced disappearance of this prominent social leader and take steps to stem the deepening climate of fear his disappearance has caused.”
On Tuesday, a group of 61 civil society organizations in Thailand called on Laos to take “every urgent action” with regard to Sombath’s case in a letter sent to the government, the Thai and Singaporean embassies in Vientiane, and to Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Sombath is well known among Thai activists working on cross-border social development issues. His wife is a Singaporean national.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.