Dozens of human rights activists held protests Tuesday in front of the headquarters of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHCR) as the council conducted Laos’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) meeting in Geneva.
Led by the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, the crowd picketed the meeting in an attempt to draw attention to human rights abuses in Laos.
Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service, ADL President Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiese said that Vientiane has not yet implemented the 116 recommendations it agreed to five years ago — the last time it was reviewed by the council.
At that time, the council offered 196 recommendations on how to improve its human rights situation, but Laos rejected 80 of them.
“Today we are demanding the Lao government change its political system to democracy,” said Chanthalavong-Wiese
The ADL president called for the release of political prisoners, the release of information regarding the disappearance of activists and dissidents, respect for human rights and freedom of speech, freedoms of press and of association, a stop to government-backed land grabs, less Chinese and Vietnamese influence over the country, and an end to dam construction.
The UPR is a process by which U.N. member states evaluate their human rights records. Each state goes before the review panel to declare actions they have taken to improve human rights and to fulfil human rights obligations under international agreements.
Leading the Lao delegation in Geneva was Bounkeut Sangsomsak who said, “The promotion and protection of human rights are at the heart of the government of Laos.”
“[Laos] acknowledges, respects, protects and guarantees human rights and fundamental rights of its citizens in accordance with the law—rights, freedoms and obligations of Lao citizens in various fields, [that are] enshrined in the constitution of the Lao PDR and in line with the treaties that the Lao PDR is a party to,” he said
The Lao delegate also took issue with the claim that the government did not implement the 116 recommendations from the last cycle, saying, “[the report] reflects the achievement and success of the implementation of the 116 recommendations.”
“Since the second cycle of UPR, the Lao government has taken legislative and policy actions to improve the country’s good governance,” he added.
Following Laos’ presentation, member nations aired their concerns and provided further recommendations to Laos.
Concerns and recommendations
The UK delegate recognized progress that Laos has made since the last cycle. He praised Laos’ commitment to development but said that the UK was disappointed by land appropriations in the one-party communist state.
The UK welcomed Laos’ acceptance of recommendations that detained people be treated humanely, but remained concerned that torture is still widely reported and not properly investigated.
Britain was further concerned about freedom of expression and access for foreign news agencies, he said.
The U.S. meanwhile said it remained “deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Laos, particularly severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms that deprive the country’s citizens of an opportunity to exercise basic rights, and deprive the government of an opportunity to engage meaningfully with its citizenry.”
The Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development sent an open letter to U.N. member states on Friday saying that in a report it had submitted for the UPR process, it and two other rights organizations outlined many of the “more serious concerns” in Laos.
“The submission found that the country’s persistent failure to uphold its commitments has resulted in continued unwarranted restrictions to civic space and acute shortcomings with respect to right to freedom to freedom expression, assembly and association, and in the protection of human rights defenders,” it said.
“Based on our research, the government continues to exercise pervasive control over civil society, which faces severe restrictions as a result. Extensive surveillance, reprisals and the criminalization and enforced disappearance of human rights defenders have created an environment in which it is all but impossible to speak out,” it added.
Speakers and protesters at Tuesday’s meeting in Geneva repeatedly mentioned the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone in December 2012.
Prior to his abduction at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital Vientiane, Sombath had criticized government-negotiated land deals that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with inadequate compensation for their losses.
Some also brought up Houayheuang Xayabouly, also known by her nickname Mouay, who was arrested Sept. 12 after she voiced her concern about the government response to flooding in the country’s southern Champassak and Salavan provinces in her Sept. 5 Facebook Live video.
Mouay recently received a five year sentence for criticizing the government online.