UN Human Rights Committee slams Laos record on civil and political rights

Expression

UN raised concerns about severe restrictions of fundamental freedoms

In July 2018, Laos civil and political rights record was reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The Committee raised concerns about “the existence of severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly, which hinder the development of a civic space in which individuals can meaningfully exercise their human rights and promote human rights without fear of sanctions and reprisals". The restrictions include:

  • The vague and broadly formulated offenses of defamation, libel and insult (articles 94 and 95 of the Penal Code), ‘propaganda against the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’ (article 65 of the Penal Code), and ‘gatherings aimed at causing social disorder’ (article 72 of the Penal Code), and their use to curtail freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly;
  • The criminalisation, pursuant to Decree No. 327 of 16 September 2014, of online criticism of the government and the Lao People's Revolutionary Party or circulating false information online;
  • State control over the media, including the restrictions reportedly aimed at ensuring strict adherence to and promotion of government policy introduced by the 2016 amendments to the Media Act of 2008 and by the Decree on Management of Foreign Media of November 2015 requiring submission of materials for governmental approval before publication;
  • The broad and wide-ranging list of prohibited content in existing laws regulating media and publication that promotes self-censorship and the sanctions for publishing content that does not meet governmental approval;
  • Reports of arbitrary arrests, detention, trial without due process and criminal convictions for expression of political opposition and criticism of State authorities or policies, including through the internet, such as in the case of Bounthanh Thammavong who was sentenced to imprisonment to four years and nine months for a Facebook post and an article critical of the Government, and that of Somphone Phimmasone, Lodkham Thammavong and Soukan Chaithad who were sentenced to 12 to 20 years imprisonment for posting criticism of the Government on the Internet and participating in a peaceful demonstration in Bangkok against the policies of the State party.

The UN Human Rights Committee called on Laos to "revise its laws and practices with a view to guaranteeing the full enjoyment of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly by everyone in practice".

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the affiliated Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) noted in a statement how the “outcome of the United Nations’ assessment of the human rights situation in Laos highlighted the country’s highly repressive environment and the government’s failure to respect virtually all civil and political rights".

Debbie Stothard, FIDH Secretary-General said:

“The outcome of the UN review should be an eye-opener for foreign governments, which have too often looked the other way whenever human rights violations were committed in Laos. There are no more excuses for the international community to refuse to pressure the Lao government to address key human rights issues.”
Enforced disappearance of human rights defender Sombath Somphone

Human rights organisations including Amnesty International used the opportunity of the UN review to highlight how enforced disappearances continue to be reported, with no progress in investigations or prosecutions. In particular, the case of human rights defender Sombath Somphone who disappeared in 2012 was raised.

Sombath Somphone’s disappearance was chillingly captured on CCTV which shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers. In the video, he is last seen stopped at a police checkpoint, and asked to step out of his car by traffic police. Moments later, a motorcyclist arrives at the scene, abandons his motorcycle and drives away in Sombath’s car. A few minutes later, another man emerges from the police post, and waits by the side of the road. Soon, a pick-up truck arrives, with its lights flashing. Sombath was then forced into the truck by unknown individuals. The truck then leaves, with armed people riding a motorcycle leading the way. 

His whereabouts remain unknown and there has been no credible investigation into his enforced disappearance.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), Laos government delegate Bounkeut Sangsomsak refused to answer detailed questions during the review on the authorities’ efforts to find Sombath. Instead, he tried to change the subject, making an allegation about Sombath having 1 to 2 million USD in unreported assets. He also attacked Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng, claiming no legal documents have been found to confirm their marriage.

At the end of the review, the  Human Rights Committee said it “regrets the paucity of relevant information provided by (Laos) regarding the measures taken, and the progress achieved, in investigating the enforced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone".

Peaceful assembly

Two children involved in land protests released

Two children - Ny, a girl, and Nak, a boy - were released in June 2018. The two were detained by police in July 2017 together with 12 other villagers from Yeub village who were taken into custody for obstructing workers and cutting down trees on land granted by the government to a Vietnamese rubber company. The residents of Yeub village in Sekong’s Thateng district have been in a dispute with the government over land rights since 2006.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), several of the detainees were beaten or subjected to electric shocks in the days following their arrest, while many are now malnourished and in failing health. In January 2018, one of the 14 villagers, Somsavanh, died under mysterious circumstance in police custody. The relatives challenged the government claims that the man had killed himself. Speaking to RFA, an anonymous source said, “I believe that he must have been tortured to death, because I once saw bruises on his chest". The funeral were arranged by authorities, and no family members were allowed to participate or perform religious rites.

An anonymous source told RFA that the two children have been released but forbidden to tell other people about their time in detention.