The government of Laos has failed to address the country’s “systemic human rights problems,” a rights group said Tuesday ahead of a United Nations review of its rights record during which the disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone is expected to be highlighted by the international community.
Laos is set to appear for its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in October at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and in a critique submitted to the world body, New York-based Human Rights Watch raised “several human rights issues that deserve international attention.”
Among the problems were severe restrictions on fundamental liberties, absence of labor rights, and detention of suspected drug users without charge in “abusive” drug centers, the group said.
Of particular concern, Human Rights Watch said, is the forced disappearance of Sombath, who some international rights groups suspect may have been abducted by government-linked organizations.
Sombath went missing after he was stopped in his vehicle at a police checkpoint, in the capital Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012. He was seen in police surveillance video being transferred into another vehicle and has not been heard from since.
“The Lao authorities are defying international concerns by ignoring calls to respond to the enforced disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.
“Concerned governments need to drive home the point that they will not sit complacently by as disappearances and other abuses multiply in Laos.”
Human Rights Watch also highlighted the disappearance of environmentalist Sompawn Khantisouk, who has been missing since he was ordered to report to a police station in January 2007.
Laos “has not made tangible changes” towards meeting commitments it made during the country’s first UPR session in 2010, it said, calling on the government to ratify core international human rights conventions, as well as end restrictions on rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and the media.
“This government brooks no dissent from its people, and uses rights-abusing laws and long prison terms to prevent any challenge to its power,” Robertson said.
“Lao people fear their government because they know officials can act with near total impunity.”
Human Rights Watch challenged Laos to bring its labor laws into line with the standards of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency dealing with global labor issues.
“Workers are … denied their rights, and 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 (LFTU),” the critique said.
“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.”
Human Rights Watch also urged authorities to investigate abuses in the country’s drug detention centers and shift to voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment.
It said Lao authorities frequently violate the rights of people held in drug detention centers and that detainees are often held against their will for months and even years without due process protections such as a court ruling, ongoing judicial oversight, or an appeal mechanism.
“Compulsory detention in the Lao drug centers violates a slew of human rights,” Robertson said.
“Suspected drug users are arbitrarily arrested, denied a fair trial, and subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment in the drug centers.”
Last month, the European Union raised concerns with Laos about media controls, registration of nongovernmental organizations, and other human rights issues during a bilateral dialogue in Belgium, underscoring the need for a vibrant civil society environment in the Southeast Asian state.
The EU said that at the meeting its representatives again highlighted the case of Sombath, telling the delegation from Vientiane that his “unexplained” disappearance was “of grave concern” to the group.
International rights groups have accused Laos of being reluctant to investigate his enforced disappearance, saying his case has fostered a fearful environment for activists working in the country.
Lao officials say only that they are investigating the case and have denied involvement in the well-respected community development worker’s disappearance, suggesting he may have been kidnapped by “criminal elements,” according to his wife Ng Shui Meng.
Sombath was the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership—Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for his work in the fields of education and development.
Laos has turned down international assistance in the investigations into Sombath's disappearance, including a U.S. offer to provide technical help to enhance the quality of some blurry images of the surveillance video footage.