Washington must withhold trade agreements and assistance from Laos until its government can demonstrate concrete progress on human rights and democratic reform in the one party communist country, the head of an advocacy group has recommended to U.S. lawmakers.
Mutually beneficial trade arrangements and political exchanges cannot take place between the U.S. and nations that deny basic human rights and operate under repressive systems of governance, Bounchanh Senthavong, president of U.S.-based Union for Lao Nation, told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress in Washington Wednesday during a briefing on Laos and Cambodia.
Bounchanh called for immediate action from Congress and the U.S. government “to promote more effective observance and application of human rights and democracy reform standards by the government of Laos.”
“All future trade arrangements and agreements with Laos … must include strong provisions assuring observance and effective enforcement of internationally recognized human rights and democracy reform standards,” she said.
“Absent a certification to Congress by the U.S. Department of State that significant progress is being made by the government of Laos with respect to human rights and democracy reform, no trade agreements or concession with Laos should be permitted.”
Bounchanh recommended that military and other forms of foreign assistance to Laos, including loans and assistance provided by international financial institutions that the U.S. government supports, should be withheld unless the State Department can certify to Congress the country’s compliance with rights and democracy principles.
She also called on Congress to bring broader attention to abuses taking place in Laos through hearings and resolutions focused on the issues, and by pressing for integration of human rights concerns into U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic efforts “on a more effective basis.”
Among the examples of “significant human rights abuses” Bounchanh said should be given greater attention by Congress and the U.S. government were restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press, arbitrary detentions and disappearances, limits on workers’ rights, and unlawful land grabs and deforestation.
She called the practices “just the tip of the iceberg” with respect to the “wide range of serious human rights abuses that are engaged in on a regular and systematic basis by the government of Laos,” which earlier this month marked the 40th anniversary of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where the ruling communist party has maintained a one party state since a coup in 1975.
Bounchanh also drew attention to the influence of neighboring Vietnam on Laos and the implications of concessions granted to the country under the terms of the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement between Pacific Rim nations, of which both the U.S. and Vietnam are members.
Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service after the briefing, she said that if a space was not provided for people to express their opinions openly in Laos “it will remain less developed than neighboring countries.”
Laos, which assumed the chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November, announced earlier this month during an ordinary session of its National Assembly (parliament) that it had added the phrase “The State accepts, respects and protects the human rights of its citizens” to Article 34 of the country’s constitution.
But T. Kumar, international advocacy director of London-based Amnesty International, and who also spoke at Wednesday’s briefing, said the move would “not solve the [underlying] problem” with rights abuses in Laos.
“The problem is that [the government needs to] start treating its people in a human rights [oriented] and democratic manner,” he said.
“[ASEAN] is a very powerful unit and becoming a chair involves responsibilities. We will see whether Laos will rise up to the occasion to be the chair by treating its own people [well] is something we need to look into.”
Kumar called on the U.S. to use the regional attention on Laos to “exert pressure to open up the country to reap democratic reforms and human rights.” The White House recently announced that U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Laos for the 2016 ASEAN Summit—a first for an incumbent U.S. President.
He said that if the U.S. is unable to pressure Laos to reform in its capacity as ASEAN chair, “the international community should think of taking this to the United Nations [to demand a] more robust human rights mechanisms and put pressure on them for this.”
Kumar also called for a “specific investigation” into the disappearance of Lao civil society activist Sombath Somphone, whose Dec. 15, 2012 abduction from a police checkpoint in the capital Vientiane is widely believed to have been carried out by a government-linked group, though authorities in Laos have consistently denied playing a role in his disappearance.
Morton Sklar, executive director of Human Rights USA, and who moderated Wednesday’s briefing, also called for the U.S. to exert more pressure on Laos, particularly with regard to the provision of U.S. assistance.
“The issues of human rights and democracy reform … have not been given the attention they deserve here in the United States and by the United States Congress,” he told RFA.
“Effective action has to be taken to be sure that the Sombath Somphone case is given attention and other actions are taken to make sure that the variety of issues that we discussed today are properly addressed.”
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.