BANGKOK — Southeast Asian lawmakers today called on the European Union (EU) to impress upon Laos the need for radical improvements to the human rights situation there and specifically raise concerns regarding the ineffectual investigation into the disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone.
The call comes as a delegation from Laos is visiting Brussels on May 19–20 as part of the 5th Lao-EU Working Group on Human Rights and Governance. The delegation will also visit the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities and the EU Parliament on Tuesday 20 May. The delegation is also expected to visit the UK Parliament in London later this week.
APHR has called upon representatives of the EU, including Members of the European Parliament and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis to raise these and other concerns where possible during the Lao delegation’s visit to the European Union. It must be made clear to the Lao authorities that there is widespread dissatisfaction and anger with their handling of the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance as well as the overall human rights situation in the country, APHR said.
It must be made crystal clear to Vientiane that it risks its international reputation, which among other potential repercussions, could affect its access to development loans and aspirations to sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2016, APHR said.
Within our own region APHR has been raising these concerns on a bi-lateral basis regularly, and across all levels of government. Recently, the Singapore government again reiterated its deeps concern and urged the Lao government to do all it can to expedite the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance.
The Lao authorities have been responding with the same frustrating answers since day 1 of Sombath’s disappearance on 15 December 2012, saying that they are taking the case seriously and the investigation is continuing but there is no new information to report. APHR questions the veracity of these statements and has deep reservations about the sincerity of the investigation to uncover the details surrounding Sombath’s disappearance and his current status and whereabouts.
“We remain extremely dissatisfied with the statements offered from the Lao authorities to date concerning the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance,” said Eva Sundari, Indonesian Member of Parliament and President of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
“How is it possible for an investigation to be going on almost a year and a half but no new information having been discovered? The response of the Lao government to date is frankly illogical and opens it up to suspicion regarding Sombath’s disappearance, particularly given the fact he was last seen being stopped by police at a police post, and taken away right in front of the police.”
APHR is also aware that a caller of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a call to the Singapore Embassy five days after Sombath’s disappearance indicating that Sombath would be released the following day. Subsequently, the caller denied he had ever made a call that Sombath would be released. The EU Charge d’Affairs and some other Vientiane-based Ambassadors were also aware of such a phone call.
APHR urges the EU to publicly offer the Lao authorities assistance in their investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, as nearly 18 months on, they clearly do not have the capacity or the will to competently handle the inquiry. APHR also calls on the EU to press Laos to establish a new, independent commission, with commissioners appointed from other ASEAN states, to undertake an impartial and thorough investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, in accordance with Laos’ obligations under international law.
“The government in Vientiane must be consistently reminded that this issue will not go away, and that they will be continually pressed on this wherever their representatives may go,” said Walden Bello, Philippines Congressman and Vice President of APHR.
The Lao government has a duty and a responsibility to pursue this case of enforced disappearance as it has signed the Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and must be pressed to live up to that commitment.
APHR calls on the EU to press Laos to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Agreement on Privileges and Immunities of the International Criminal Court, incorporate their provisions in to domestic law and implement them in policy and practice.
Currently in Laos, freedom of expression is restricted and civil society is subjugated. APHR urges the EU to back APHR’s calls for the Lao authorities to respect and protect the right of human rights defenders and other civil society actors so that they can carry out their work unimpeded. All restrictions in law and practice that are infringing upon the work of civil society organizations in Laos must be repealed and legal provisions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association must be brought in line with international human rights standards.
Several APHR members were part of a delegation that visited the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic to follow up on the investigation into the disappearance of Sombath in January 2013. These included Philippines Congressman Walden Bello and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago. The officials they met acknowledged that the disappearance of Sombath was a blow to the reputation of the Lao PDR, but the answers to their questions were far from satisfactory, and they let this be known.
APHR remains heartened by continued efforts and support from foreign missions in Vientiane, as well as governments and parliamentarians in Europe and elsewhere who have continued to raise these and other concerns with the Lao authorities. We ask you again to raise these issues with the visiting delegation to the European Parliament from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic this month.