Laos Accused of Paying Lip Service to UN Human Rights Conventions

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines.
AFP/Somphone family

Authorities in Laos are paying lip service to U.N. human rights conventions the government has signed up to, civil society groups charged ahead of the next U.N. review of the country’s rights record.

They called on the United Nations to have a mechanism to follow up with the Lao authoritarian government over its implementation of recommendations made during previous UPR processes.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) will examine Laos’ rights record at a UPR meeting on Jan. 20 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The UPR involves a comprehensive review of the human rights record of all U.N. member countries every four years.

“The most important thing is that the UNHRC has to investigate whether the government has defined the terms of the UN human rights conventions in the country’s constitutution, and whether the country’s laws match the terms of the rights conventions,” a civil society official in Laos involved in the UPR process told RFA’s Lao Service.

He went on to say that although the Lao government had agreed to support human rights conventions, he was unsure whether some of the country’s leaders understood the terms of these laws.

“I think to make it clear, the UNHRC must have a mechanism to follow up and strongly investigate the progress of human rights practices that the Lao government has made,” said the official, who declined to be named because he works closely with officials from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Lao foreign affairs ministry.

He said there was enough evidence of human rights violations by the Lao government, citing the indiscriminate arrest of Lao Christians from the ethnic Hmong community.

Pre-session talks

The civil society official was among those who attended pre-session talks last month in Geneva among five groups—the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, Forum-Asia and the Lao Movement for Human Rights—aimed at reviewing the human rights situation in the country.

According to the briefing paper from the session, the groups called on Lao officials to implement the commitments made during the country’s last UPR in 2010, including becoming a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED).

The Lao government had also committed to implement all provisions of international human rights treaties to which the country is a party, and amend the penal law to provide for all acts of enforced disappearances along with corresponding penalties.

They also called on Lao officials to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the “apparent enforced disappearance” of civil society leader Sombath Somphone two years ago, publicly release original images from a video recording of his disappearance, and accept assistance from foreign experts in examining evidence.

They also want Lao officials to allow Sombath’s wife access to the files and findings of the investigation and provide her with an effective remedy and reparation for his disappearance.

In addition, they also called on the Lao government to conduct thorough investigations of other enforced disappearances, including nine activists arrested on Nov. 2, 2009, in connection with planned peaceful demonstrations demanding democracy, justice and respect for land rights.

The report also cited the country’s limited engagement with civil society in the UPR national process; restrictions on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association; harassment of civil society and community groups; violations of land rights; arbitrary detention and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees; and labor rights violations.

Pledge to donor countries

The civil society official also said that the Lao government had failed to live up to its pledge to donor countries that it would improve its human rights record.

“The government would like to raise its profile in the eyes of the international community through the human rights conventions it has signed,” he said.

“The Lao government signed to support the human rights conventions based on UPR with goal of getting funding support. Based on the conditions in the convention, the government has to develop its own laws related to the convention in order to apply them in practice.”

Phoukhong Sisoulath, Director General of the Treaties and Law Department at the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who is in charge of the UPR process, refused to comment, saying he was at meetings when contacted more than once by RFA’s Lao Service.  

During the UPR, committees with expertise in human rights issues will question Lao officials about the country’s human rights issues, but what’s more important is how the UNHRC will follow up if it finds something in the UPR report that is unclear and unsatisfactory.  

The civil society groups do not want the session to simply be a regular review that occurs every five years without anyone following up to ensure that the Lao government puts into practice what it has agreed to do in writing, the cival society official said.

Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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