Posts tagged ‘human rights’

December 17, 2014

HRW: Lao government’s investigation into Sombath case ‘is a sham’

Human Rights

HRW: Lao government’s investigation into Sombath case ‘is a sham’

Two years ago, prominent activist Sombath Somphone vanished from the streets of the Lao capital Vientiane. Although the authorities could give answers, they have remained silent to this day, says HRW’s Phil Robertson.

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Laos Sombath Somphone Archivbild 2005

On the evening of December 15, 2012, civil society leader Sombath disappeared without a trace. He was on his way home from the office when he was pulled over at a police checkpoint. The rights activist was later taken to another vehicle and driven away. His whereabouts still remain unknown.

Right from the beginning, it is widely believed to be a case of enforced disappearance, with many suspecting the Southeast Asian nation’s Communist one-party government to be behind the abduction. The government, however, has so far firmly denied any responsibility for the incident. The Sombath case stirred an international outcry, with prominent figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Desmond Tutu calling for his safe return and urging the authorities not to block a thorough investigation.

Sombath had for decades campaigned for the rights of the land-locked nation’s poor rural population and the protection of environment. In 2005, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, considered Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In a DW interview, Phil Robertson, Asia expert at Human Rights Watch, strongly criticizes the Lao government for their hard stance.

Phil Robertson Human Rights Watch

Robertson: ‘The authorities know far more than they are letting on’

DW: It has been two years since Sombath went missing. Are there any news concerning his whereabouts and his fate?

Phil Robertson: No, there’s been very little additional news about his whereabouts or what has happened to him. What we know is that Sombath was taken away as seen in the CCTV video of December 15, 2012, and there are reliable sources that said he was still in the custody of the authorities in Vientiane later that night, but then little more is known after that.

The Lao police’s investigation has been a complete joke so far. The authorities know far more than they are letting on, and it’s really become quite clear that the government’s investigation is a sham, designed to draw out the time and frustrate those demanding answers – presumably with the aim of getting them to finally give up and forget.

But two years on, we’re not going to forget, and we’re going to remain committed to supporting his wife, Shui-Meng Ng, and family, in their demands for answers. I’ve lost count of the number of offers of technical assistance by European and North American police forces to the Lao police for their investigation, but all of those offers have been refused.

As a recent report from the International Commission of Jurists shows, there are many lines of investigative inquiry to be pursued if the Lao government were interested in doing the sort of thorough investigation required by international human rights law – but instead, they are engaged in a cover-up, and a campaign of enforced silence in Vientiane to prevent anyone from saying more about Sombath.

The many governments providing development assistance to Laos should make a big issue of this and demand a real search for the truth of what has happened to Sombath.

From the very beginning, the Lao government has denied that it had anything to do with Sombath’s disappearance. Is there any chance that someone other the government is responsible for this?

​The Lao government has been lying from the top on down when it comes to the Sombath case. At the start of their inquiries, they freely admitted that the person pictured in the CCTV footage was Sombath – but now they are claiming that maybe it was not him. So if anything, the investigation is not making any progress. It’s rather going backwards.

Lately, Lao diplomats have been trying to peddle a new theory that Sombath’s work brought him into conflict with Thai mafia elements involved in Laos and that it was the Thais that did something to him. Of course, there is no evidence of that. This is yet another part of the officials’ ongoing effort to confuse and misinform, and desperately try to transfer blame to somewhere else other than the Lao government.

For the second anniversary of his disappearance, a group of legislators, civil society leaders and activists launched the so-called Sombath Initiative. What does this Initiative stand for?

What the Sombath Initiative stands for is an ongoing campaign for answers about what happened to Sombath. The initiative calls for justice for him and his family, and reminds his vision and work in participatory rural development. It will counter the effort by the Lao government to “buy time” with their bogus investigation and press people to forget. The Initiative will ensure that no one forgets the case.

Furthermore, it will also defend Sombath’s reputation and his work from the kind of scurrilous rumors that the Lao government is trying to spread to somehow discredit him.

Do you reckon that the new initiative could actually achieve something in order to solve the case and compel the government to start a thorough investigation?

​The Initiative will bring together all of Sombath’s friends, allies, and admirers from home and abroad to press the Lao government to change its views and start a real investigation into the enforced disappearance of Sombath.

The challenge in disappearance cases is always to sustain the interest and momentum of those who care against the efforts to cover up the truth. And often, these battles take years. We hope that it will not take that long to find out what has happened to Sombath, and ideally see him returned to his family, but the Sombath Intiative is built to sustain a campaign indefinitely until we get the answers we seek.

Vita Park

Sombath had for decades campaigned for the rights of the country’s poor rural population

What effect did the disappearance of Sombath have on others? What has changed since then?

An unprecedented chill has come over grass-roots villages and communities in Laos of the sort not seen since the early years after the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party took over in 1975 and started sending perceived opponents to ​brutal “re-education camps”.

The difference between then and now is the existence of various civil society groups and non-profit associations, led by many who received training and encouragement from Sombath and the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC) that he founded.

Among these groups, there is now great fear and self-censorship because they see that if such a prominent civil society leader as Sombath can be taken, then no one is safe. So a wall of silence has descended in Vientiane. On the government side, only a few persons are authorized to give the standard government line and everyone else says nothing. On the civil society side, people are looking over their shoulders and are afraid of talking about Sombath.

Sombath has been missing for two years now. In your opinion, what are the chances that he is still alive?

I really don’t know, but we’re all hoping for the best. It’s hard to imagine that a man who has so selflessly contributed to his nation’s development and the well being of ordinary people should be considered an enemy to anyone. ​

Phil Robertson is deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

October 1, 2014

Laos Joins Southeast Asian Neighbors in Imposing Stricter Internet Controls

Advocacy Global Voices

Laos Joins Southeast Asian Neighbors in Imposing Stricter Internet Controls

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Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong has signed a new decree imposing stricter Internet control in the country. Signed last September 16, 2014, the new regulation promotes responsible and “constructive” use of the Internet among Lao netizens.

A few months ago, Lao officials announced that they were studying the experience of other Southeast Asian nations as a guide in drafting an Internet law which they plan to implement this year. They chose the restrictive cyber laws of Myanmar and Vietnam as models in formulating the framework of Laos’ Internet law. Laos officials also reportedly looked at the approach used by China in regulating the Web.

As expected, the result is a law that claims to support the growth of the Internet but actually contains numerous contradictory provisions that undermine free speech and other citizen rights.

Provisions that recognize the privacy rights of Internet users, the protection of intellectual property, and prohibitions on pornography may be less controversial for Laotians. But the law also prohibits sharing photos that “contradict Lao traditions and culture.” The question is this, who will decide whether an obscene image insults Laotian heritage?

The same decree also identified several so-called “cybercrimes” whose definitions are unclear and very broad. They include:

– Disseminating false information against the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party;
– Circulating information that encourages citizens to be involved in terrorism, murder, and social disorder;
– Supporting online campaigns that seek to divide solidarity among ethnic groups and between countries;
– Spreading information that distorts truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions and organizations;
– Sharing of comments whose contents are in line with the abovementioned prohibitions.

Internet service providers are ordered not to provide service to individuals, legal entities or organizations whose movement seeks to undermine the Party and government policies.

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From this week’s top stories: government issues decree to control internet activity 

Based on these guidelines, it seems that legitimate criticism of government programs and policies can be interpreted as a criminal act if it creates division, confusion, or “disorder” among the public. It is easy to see how authorities could use the law to prosecute journalists, activists, and other critics of the government.

The law also prohibits the creation of anonymous or pseudonymous accounts online, purportedly in an effort “to ease the efforts of authorities in regulating the Internet.” This is a big blow to citizens who seek to expose wrongdoings in the government through the Internet.

The government believes that this kind of Internet regulation is necessary to prevent abuse and misuse of the Internet as a space for communication and connection. While acknowledging the positive contributions of the Internet to the local economy, Lao officials also warned that it can be used to cause panic in society. They cited the spread of inaccurate information about the Lao Airlines crash and a recently online rumor of human organ trafficking in Attapeu province. In both cases, the Laos government was forced to make official statements to clarify the wrong information.

Despite these excesses, however, the Laos government previously vowed not to block the Internet, believing that it is essential to the “modernization and industrialization” of the country. But the new Internet law will undermine the commitment of Laos officials to keep the Internet open and free. It will discourage netizens from maximizing online spaces to engage public officials and challenge public policies.

The law could also impede the growth of the IT sector. In 2011 there were only 60,000 Facebook users in Laos. Today, more than half a million Lao citizens use the popular social networking site. According to news reports, there are now five telecommunications companies, seven Internet service providers and about 900 computer shops in the country. At this time, what Laos needs is a law that will boost this industry and not something that will unfairly penalize critics, activists, and even ordinary Internet users.

It is unfortunate that Laos has aligned itself with its neighbors in the region that are implementing repressive Internet laws to stifle dissent, intimidate the opposition, and even punish critical citizens. Laos should strive to distinguish itself in the region by adopting a human rights-based framework in regulating the Internet.

May 23, 2014

Laos “land grabs” drive subsistence farmers into deeper poverty*

humanitarian news and analysis

a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Laos “land grabs” drive subsistence farmers into deeper poverty*

By Dana MacLean
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the region

“When these lands [are given] to companies and converted to industrial agriculture or other uses, it destroys the foundation of rural people’s lives, livelihoods and knowledge systems, as well as their access to food, nutrition, medicines and incomes,” Shalmali Guttal, a senior analyst with Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based NGO which campaigns for social justice in Laos, told IRIN.

Large-scale land leases in Laos – or “land grabs,” as campaigners call them – are driven by foreign investment projects brokered between the government and private companies, which have increased in frequency in the past decade and encroached on the land occupied by hundreds of communities, according to researchers at the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in Switzerland.

Ethnic minorities, which make up about 70 percent of the population, mostly live in resource-rich upland areas, which are often the target of land purchases by international corporations.

Because of where they live, they are disproportionately affected.

“Since many of Laos’s ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples’ traditional lands are in areas coveted for conversion into development projects, they have been targeted for relocation projects, largely without their free, prior or informed consent,” says Nicole Girard, senior campaigner for Minority Rights Group (MRG).

Corporations usually promise prosperity. For example, mining operations in Laos have claimed to create thousands of jobs and contribute to local development: The proponents of such schemes would probably point to the fact that between 2005 and 2012, Laos’ GDP increased from US$2.7 billion to 9.3 billion.

However, increased poverty and higher mortality rates are often the lot of those displaced following a government-brokered land deal.

“As most [ethnic farmers] have no education, if they are forcibly displaced, they have very few livelihood options,” said Debbie Stothard, executive director of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), a coalition of human rights NGOs.

Researchers and activists point to the impossibility of continuing traditional farming practices, coupled with lack of work skills, as driving resettled communities into poverty. Land deals in Laos, they say, despite decent laws, are carried out with little transparency or accountability.

Higher mortality
“There are certain indications that there is a new poverty happening in Laos with the landless poor,” said Andreas Heinimann, senior lecturer at CDE, who co-authored a 2012 land report with the Laos Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) .
Most people depend on the land for their livelihoods
UN Development Programme research found that populations from upland villages that are resettled can suffer mortality rates of up to 30 percent when they are forced to abandon their traditional livelihoods and move to other places.“The impacts [of so many rural poor moving to urban areas] have included significant rises in mortality rates, conflict between communities, and a lack of access to education and health facilities, despite promises of such things,” said MRG’s Girard.When the government relocates farmers to consolidated villages near towns and cities, families in some cases have been given as little as 0.75 hectares of land – roughly half what they traditionally use for farming.Most ethnic groups in rural areas practice shifting cultivation, which requires large plots of land to allow some soil to lie fallow to regenerate while other sections are planted – a system that is “completely different” from the settled farming of the lowland areas where they are resettled, according toHeinimann.In June 2012 the government issued a moratorium on new land concessions for rubber and eucalyptus farming, and mining. However, researchers say, murky land deals continue to drive ethnic communities off their land without adequate consultation or compensation.
Lack of transparency
Official data show 1.1 million hectares of land – 5 percent of the country’s arable land – has been the subject of roughly 2,600 land deals since 2010 (when the government started keeping track) for large-scale development projects, though some activists suspect leased land could be more than three times that amount. In 2012 the International Food Policy Research Institute listed Laos among seven countries in the world in which international land deals account for more than 10 percent of the total agricultural area.
Photo: Martin Abbiati/IRIN.  An ethnic Hmong woman in Ban Houythao, northern Luang Prabang
“Decisions are not made in public because [the government] doesn’t have proper procedures, and companies are operating in a vacuum of rule of law and policy,” said Michael Taylor, the programme manager for Global Land Policy at the International Land Coalition (ILC), a Rome-basedsecretariatforNGOs and UN agencies working on land issues worldwide.All land in Laos officially belongs to the state, leaving citizens with few options in terms of legal redress when land deals are brokered between the government and companies.“The government sometimes just tells people to move. Of course, we don’t want to go, but what can we do?” saidVong (he uses one name), a 25-year-old ethnic Hmong farmer in BanHouythao village in northernLuangPrabang Province.The most recent domestic analysis shows that 72 percent of all land development projects in Laos are run by foreign investors – mostly from China, Vietnam, and Thailand.Investors target resource-rich and fertile land, especially forested areas, which ILC’s Taylor calls “winning twice” – meaning the companies are “harvesting timber and selling it before using the land [for other projects].”“In the rush to attract overseas capital, the Laos government has made concessions [renting out areas for intensive land use projects] extremely favourable for foreign investors,” said Taylor.

While a 2005 government decree requires investors to compensate and resettle villagers whose land is appropriated for projects, loose monitoring means implementation has been piecemeal.

“The legal framework is good, but enforcement is the issue,” said CDE researcher Oliver Schoenweger. “Most of the time, no compensation is provided to individuals.”

For example, a lignite mining project in the northern Hongsa District launched in 2010 to provide electricity to Thailand will expropriate roughly 6,000 hectares of rice paddy fields cultivated by 2,000 farmers there. However, according to the Land Issues Working Group, a consortium of international NGOs based on Vientiane, the Laos capital, no negotiation with communities has taken place.

The government, in the report it co-published with CDE, acknowledged the lack of proper oversight allows such cases to occur.

“Weaknesses in national land planning and the enforcement of investment regulations have generated concerns,” admitted Akhom Tounalom, vice-minister of MoNRE, explaining: “This case and several others reveal the severe disadvantages local populations have in land negotiations, especially where they are poorly educated, illiterate, or simply under-exposed to tenure or business-related standards or practices.”

“There is a lot of scope for abuse,” said Taylor.

* The corrected percentage of the population comprised of ethnic minorities is up to 70 percent


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
January 27, 2014

Press Release: Laos, Hmong Human Rights Advocate Honored With Medal of the Order of Australia

Laos, Hmong Human Rights Advocate Honored With Medal of the Order of Australia

Washington, D.C., and Canberra, Australia, January 26, 2014,

Center for Public Policy Analysis

Human rights and humanitarian advocate Kay Danes, who suffered imprisonment and torture in Laos at the hands of communist officials, is being honored today on Australia Day with the prestigious Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).  She is one of Australia’s 2014 OAM recipients for service to the community through social justice and human rights.

For over a decade, Mrs. Danes has repeatedly traveled to Washington, D.C., on official invitation, to speak in the U.S. Congress about human rights violations in Laos and the plight of the Lao and Hmong people, including imprisoned political and religious dissidents.  She has testified about the status of refugees facing forced repatriation, foreign prisoners tortured in Laos, religious persecution, and three Hmong-Americans from St. Paul, Minnesota, still imprisoned and missing in Laos, including Mr. Hakit Yang. Mr. Congshineng Yang, and Mr. Trillion Yunhaison,

“Kay Danes had provided critical and important research, evidence and testimony to the U.S. Congress, government policymakers and the Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA), over the years, regarding ongoing human rights and religious freedom violations in Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia,” said Philip Smith, Executive Director of the CPPA.

“This vital information, and Mrs. Danes’ courage to give voice to the voiceless, has been invaluable in helping to understand the hidden reality of the situation under the communist regimes in Laos and Vietnam, especially in light of the recent abduction of civic activist and Magsaysay Award winner Sombath Somphone by Lao security forces in Vientiane, and the international outcry for his release,” Smith commented.

Smith continued:  “Joining with many U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, including Lao and Hmong-American human rights and refugee groups, and victims’ families, we wish to sincerely congratulate Mrs. Kay Danes for being honored today with the Medal of the Order of Australia by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the government and people of Australia. We are very happy for Kay Danes as well as her husband Kerry Danes and family, especially after the horrific human rights abuses they both suffered and witnessed in Laos during their terrible imprisonment and abuse by the Lao government.”

“Among other important humanitarian efforts, Kay Danes also provided crucial evidence and testimony about the Lao government’s recent and unfettered role in human rights abuses, torture, extra-judicial abductions and killings as well as its role in the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees and the brutal persecution of Lao student dissidents and religious believers, especially minority Christians,” Smith observed.

“The Medal of the Order of Australia is the principal and most prestigious means of recognizing outstanding members of the community at a national level and nominations are encouraged from all members of the Australian public,” states the Australian Honours Secretariat of the Australian government.

“I am grateful to be a recipient of this award and hope that the human rights conversation continues to strengthen throughout the world,” said Mrs. Danes.  “Human rights are the foundation of civil societies and set the guidelines on how we ought to act towards one another.”

Danes states further: “My long-standing relationship with the Centre for Public Policy Analysis and in particular, with Mr. Philip Smith, has very much played an important part of this award to which I am recognized today. Together, and with other humanitarians and U.S. Government officials, we hope to secure greater human rights freedoms for the thousands of those still oppressed by totalitarian regimes.”

Queensland’s Bayside Bulletin and The Redland Times (Fairfax Media Limited – Australia) helped to announce the news of the award today and cited Danes’ “…passion for social justice.”

“The Lao and Hmong community are very pleased and also grateful to Kay Danes, and her husband Kerry Danes, for their important human rights and humanitarian work,” said Sheng Xiong, of St. Paul, Minnesota, whose husband was also imprisoned and tortured in Phonthong Prison along with other Hmong-Americans.

“We want to thank Kay Danes for helping to bring awareness about terrible human rights violations in Laos and the suffering in the prisons, detention centers and refugee camps of Laos, including Phonthong prison; We commend Australia’s government, and Queen Elizabeth II, for awarding the Medal of the Order of Australia to Mrs. Danes,” said Bounthanh Rathigna, President of the United League for Democracy in Laos (ULDL).

Two Lao-American members of the ULDL from St. Paul, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, who participated in public policy events with Kay Danes in Washington, D.C., disappeared last year in Savannakhet Province, Laos and are feared dead in an incident involving Lao security and military forces.  Three Lao-Americans were traveling together during the incident including Souli Kongmalavong, Mr. Bounma Phannhotha and Mr. Bounthie Insixiengmai.

Kay Danes has authored several books on human rights violations in Laos and the plight of foreign prisoners unjustly abused, tortured and killed abroad including: Standing Ground and Families Behind Bars.  Philip Smith was asked to write the preface and Foreword to her most recent book, Standing Ground (2009, New Holland Publishers Australia).

According to the Australian government, the Order of Australia also serves to define, encourage and reinforce community standards, national aspirations and ideals by acknowledging actions and achievement and thereby identifying role models.  The award was established by the Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth nations, Elizabeth II.  HM Queen Elizabeth II is the Sovereign Head of the Order.



Maria Gomez, Jade Her or Philip Smith

Tele  (202)543-1444

Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA)

2020 Pennsylvania Ave., NW

Washington, DC   USA


Related:   Jan 28 05:11pm

Kay Danes, who suffered imprisonment and torture in Laos at the hands of communist officials, is being honored in Australia with the prestigious Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her social justice and human rights work.
January 5, 2014

A year on, the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone continues with impunity in Lao PDR

A year on, the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone continues with impunity in Lao PDR

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GENEVA (16 December 2013) – A group of United Nations human rights experts today urged the Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) to increase its efforts in the investigations into the enforced disappearance on 15 December 2012, of Sombath Somphone, a prominent human right activist working on issues of land confiscation and assisting victims in denouncing such practices.

“Mr. Somphone has been disappeared for one year. We are deeply concerned about his safety and security”, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said. “We urge the Government of Lao PDR to do its utmost to locate Mr. Somphone, to establish his fate and whereabouts, and to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

The human rights experts noted that Mr. Somphone was held in police custody following his reported disappearance, according to additional information received that sheds new light on the case. A few days after his disappearance, he was seen inside a police detention centre with his car parked in the police compound.

Two days later, he was reportedly moved to a military camp outside Vientiane, and then transferred again to an unknown location one week later. It was further reported that, a few days following his disappearance, relevant Government officials said that Mr. Somphone would be released.

It has also been reported, the experts pointed out, that the closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage, which recorded the incident of the abduction of Mr. Somphone on 15 December 2012, has not been analysed by any independent body. “We call on the Government of Lao PDR to accept external technical assistance to analyse the original CCTV footage of the incident,” they said.

“Defenders play a key role in promoting human rights and their legitimate work should be fully respected,” the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, said. “Mr. Somphone’s disappearance might have a chilling effect on human rights defenders operating in the country, owing to his high profile at the national and international levels.”

The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, called on the Government of Lao PDR “to fully cooperate with the Human Rights Council and its Special Procedures, particularly as it seeks election to the Human Rights Council for 2016.”

Mr. Maina Kiai expressed deep regret over the lack of response of the Lao PDR to his letters dated 12 December 2011 and 30 October 2013 requesting an invitation to visit the country.

The United Nations Special Rapporteurs are part of what it is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the United Nations Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are charged by the Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on human rights issues. Currently, there are 37 thematic mandates and 14 mandates related to countries and territories, with 72 mandate holders. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Learn more:

For more information log on to: Enforced disappearances: Freedom of peaceful assembly and of association: Human rights defenders: Freedom of opinion and expression:

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Lao PDR:

For more information and media requests, please contact Karen Blanc (+41 22 917 9400 /

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts: Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 /

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