UN Rights Experts Express Concern Over Disappearance of Lao Rights Defender

By Roseanne Gerin
Lao democracy advocate Od Sayavong reads a statement at a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, June 16, 2019.

United Nations human rights experts on Tuesday voiced serious concern to the Lao and Thai governments about the disappearance of prominent Lao democracy advocate Od Sayavong, who went missing in Thailand months after meeting with a U.N. special rapporteur.

Three special rapporteurs and four members of the U.N.’s Working Groups on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, part of a body of independent human rights experts under the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, urged Bangkok to clarify the steps it has taken to locate Od and ensure the safety of other vulnerable Lao human rights defenders in the capital, according to a news release.

Od, 34, who had been recognized as a refugee by the U.N. refugee agency and openly criticized his country’s government online and in public protests, was last seen at his home in Bangkok on Aug. 26.

A week later a colleague reported his disappearance to the Thai police, but authorities have not provided information about his whereabouts, the news release said.

A friend of Od told RFA in an earlier report that the right defender’s involvement in politics was the likely reason for his disappearance, citing a recent online video clip posted by Od denouncing the Lao government when ASEAN meetings were held in Thailand in June.

Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, met with Od and other Lao human rights defenders in Bangkok in mid-March prior to a visit to Laos.

“If an enforced disappearance occurred in part as a reprisal for Od’s engagement with the U.N. system, it would be a violation of his human rights, requiring immediate action,” he said in the printed news release. “Everyone should have unhindered access to and communication with the U.N. in the field of human rights.”

Michel Forst, U.N. special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, called Od a “vocal advocate on human rights, corruption, and environmental issues in the Lao PDR, a country with a track record of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances.”

“I hope Thai authorities can swiftly offer information on Od’s whereabouts,” he said in the printed statement. “Until then, we cannot dismiss the possibility that he has been disappeared and is at risk of forcible return to a country where he faces grave threats to his security.”

David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression said Od’s disappearance is “extremely worrying and could have a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”

Luciano Hazan, chairman of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, called on Thai authorities to investigate Od’s disappearance and take all necessary measures to locate him.

No progess made

Rights groups outside the U.N. have also signaled alarm over Od’s disappearance.

In a Sept. 6 statement, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights called on Thai authorities to immediately investigate the activist’s disappearance.

As a member of a group of Lao dissidents and migrant workers living in Bangkok, Od participated in a June 16 protest in the city demanding political freedoms and human rights in Laos.

He also had called for the release of three Lao workers sentenced to lengthy jail terms in April 2017 for criticizing their government while working in Thailand, and for a U.N. investigation into the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone in December 2012.

Prior to his abduction 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.

The Lao government has failed to make headway on resolving Sombath’s case, despite repeated commitments that it will do so.


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