Human rights groups demand UN action on abuses in Laos
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Human rights groups demand UN action on abuses in Laos

The Laos government is moving backward on human rights, says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. HRW issued a submission to the United Nations ahead of Laos’ Periodic Review last week, urging it to emphasize the need for reform related to enforced disappearances, freedom of speech, association, and assembly, the treatment of detainees in drug detention centers, and labor rights.

The government came under scrutiny following the enforced disappearance of civil society advocate Sombath Somphone. Officials have claimed ignorance in the two years since Sombath was mysteriously taken into police custody in Vientiane, Laos’ capital. They have also intimidated witnesses and activists demanding answers about where Sombath is and why he was abducted, and have done little to nothing in the way of investigation.

Robertson said a “wall of silence” has fallen around the case in Vientiane, with people afraid to mention the case or even Sombath’s name, for fear of government retribution.

“The take-away among community activists and local Lao non-profit associations (NPAs) is that if someone as well connected and recognized in the global community as Sombath can be taken, then no one is safe,” Robertson said in an email.  “The result is self-censorship, which of course is reinforced by the government’s total control of the news media.”

Threats and intimidation have silenced more than those who want answers about what happened to Sombath. The government’s campaign of stamping out dissent of any kind has also made it difficult for rights groups and advocates to organize, Robertson says.

Another major concern is the inhumane treatment of prisoners at the Somsanga Drug Detention Center, where the conditions and abuse are so bad, prisoners would reportedly rather kill themselves than stay there. Robertson noted that prison abuses are difficult to verify because of the lack of transparency, but “the reports that [HRW has] received indicate that conditions are primitive and brutal,” he said.

Laos is a popular destination among foreign backpackers interested in the lush countrysides and old world beauty of Luang Prabang, and the (now somewhat tamed) party scene in Vang Vieng. But beyond the river parties and the pristine waterfalls lie dark truths about the country’s economy, basic medical care, and rampant human rights abuses.

The Center for Public Policy Analysis issued a 10-point appeal ahead of the U.N. review. The appeal was signed by a number of Laos advocacy groups, including the Lao Hmong Students Association and the United League for Democracy in Laos. The groups also called for the government to “provide immediate and unconditional international access” to Sombath, and demanded an end to religious persecution of Christians, Animinists, Catholics, and people of other faiths. The organizations also insisted that the government stop forced repatriation of North Korean refugees and provide access to international legal counsel for Hmong political leaders and activists who have been imprisoned.

The list of human and civil rights violations perpetuated by Laos’ government is long and shocking, and doesn’t appear to be nearing an end. Robertson said the government has become more restrictive as the Internet has made the dissemination of information easier, and has imposed harsh laws that endanger those who dare to speak out online.

“Greater openings in information and technology, and the proliferation of NGOs worldwide, has prompted greater xenophobia among the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party,” Robertson said. “At the same time, the corruption of the ruling elites has sky-rocketed, leading to greater rapaciousness for natural resources, like timber, and construction of larger projects like dams.  As a result, government has been involved in more land seizures and displacement of ​people, and those who dare complain face the full force and fury of the state.”
Naturally, while government officials are getting theirs, the average person is left to cope with life in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Stories of rural hospitals that don’t have basic supplies such as blood and oxygen stores paint a grim picture.
“Laos sadly deserves its official designation by the U.N. as a least-developed country (LDC) and economic, social and cultural rights like right to health continue to suffer,” Robertson said.
The CPPA and other organizations that signed the 10-point appeal to the UN requested that the body sanction and condemn Laos’ government.
Mobile technology offers a slim glimmer of hope for getting the word out about the rights violations being committed by the government. However, in this poor country, mobile phones are still prohibitively expensive for many people, Robertson said. He added that foreign governments and NGOs that provide the aid on which Laos’ government heavily relies should hold officials to greater accountability on human rights abuses, especially as Laos prepares to take over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2016.
The Lao government is incredibly dependent on foreign aid, ostensibly extending significant leverage to foreign donors to demand that Vientiane do much better on respecting human rights – but inexplicably, those donor voices remain muted.  It’s time for the governments and international NGOs helping Laos to demand an end to rights abuses and a more accountable government that recognizes the importance of people having a say in their own development.  Since Laos will be taking over ASEAN in 2016, the regional spotlight will be on them – and it’s time that donor pressure also be on them too.”
Laos isn’t stuck in a cycle of poverty and abuse for lack of people who want change. The government is utterly oppressive, making it all but impossible for people to stand up for their rights and demand reform. The culture of fear is powerful, and the threat of harm or enforced disappearance is real. People tend to stay quiet when their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, depends on it.
“Harassment, intimidation and brutalization of activists happens, but it’s hard to get news of such incidents, and even when the information comes out, it’s almost impossible to verify the accounts,” Robertson said. “From a human rights perspective, it is truly a closed state – and that makes everything more difficult.”