ASEAN MPs urge Australia to push for human rights improvements in Laos

ASEAN MPs urge Australia to push for human rights improvements in Laos

JAKARTA — Southeast Asian lawmakers have called on Australian officials to press for improvements to the human rights situation in Laos when they meet with the Lao government for their fifth bilateral human rights dialogue tomorrow in Vientiane.

In a submission to the Australian government, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) urged members of the delegation to raise critical concerns about restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms with their Lao hosts, and called for further inquiry into the case of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane in December 2012.

“The human rights situation in Laos continues to be abysmal. Since Sombath’s disappearance, the space for independent civil society in the country – already one of the most repressive in the region – has narrowed considerably. Meanwhile, the public as a whole remains deeply fearful of raising sensitive issues,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament, who has made multiple visits to Laos since 2012 to inquire about Sombath’s disappearance, as well as the broader situation for civil society.

“The Australian government has a chance with this dialogue to push for change, but officials need to be straight with their Lao counterparts about the harm their failure to protect rights has done and continues to do to their international image, as well as about the urgent need for tangible improvements, including an end to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and draconian restrictions on basic rights.”

In their submission, parliamentarians highlighted restrictive decrees proposed in 2014 governing local and international organizations, as well as specific statutes limiting rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, such as Articles 65 and 72 of the Penal Law, which criminalize “anti-government propaganda” and restrict organizing and participating in public gatherings. MPs also noted the decision of ASEAN civil society groups in 2016 not to hold their annual regional gathering in Laos – then serving as ASEAN Chair – citing concerns for the safety of participants.

ASEAN MPs conducted fact-finding missions to Laos in January 2013 and September 2014 to look into the case of Sombath Somphone. During meetings with government officials, they pressed for answers and provided recommendations for how to strengthen the investigation, but concluded that the Lao government was doing little to pursue leads and had erected a “brick wall of silence” around the inquiry.

“The disappearance of such a prominent and respected member of the ASEAN community was a blow to civil society across the region, and the failure to quickly investigate the case damaged the Lao government’s credibility. It is disappointing to see how little the investigation has progressed since,” said Walden Bello, an APHR Board Member and former Philippine Congressman who joined a parliamentary delegation to Laos in 2013.

“We have still not given up hope that Sombath’s case will be resolved, but in order for that to happen, the international community – including Australia – must continue to press the Lao government for answers.”

Parliamentarians urged Australia and Laos to make public the content and focus of their discussions, including any commitments by Lao authorities to specific targets for improvement.

“We commend the Australian government’s commitment to engaging with Lao officials on human rights, and the dialogue itself represents an important first step. But it’s critical that the event be a substantive discussion of important issues and an opportunity to push for real improvements in the situation, rather than a shield for the Lao government to ignore its international obligations,” Bello added.

Click here to read the full submission.

Correction: The Lao Penal Law was amended in 2005, and article numbers were changed from their placement in the previous law from 1989. The articles relating to “anti-government propaganda” and public gatherings are currently Articles 65 and 72, respectively, not Articles 59 and 66. The linked submission reflects the original content submitted to the Australian government and therefore has not been updated to reflect this correction.