Urgently End Disappearances, Systematic Suppression of Basic Freedoms
June 10, 2014

This government brooks no dissent from its people, and uses rights-abusing laws and long prison terms to prevent any challenge to its power. Lao people fear their government because they know officials can act with near total impunity.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director

(Bangkok) – The government of Laos has failed to address the country’s systemic human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said today in a critique of Lao’s human rights record submitted to the United Nations. Laos will appear for the country’s second Universal Periodic Review in October 2014 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Human Rights Watch highlighted several human rights issues that deserve international attention, including severe restrictions on fundamental liberties, absence of labor rights, and detention of suspected drug users without charge in abusive drug centers. Of particular concern is the forced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, in Vientiane in December 2012 after he was stopped by the police, and of an environmentalist, Sompawn Khantisouk, who has been missing since he was ordered to report to a police station in January 2007.

“The Lao authorities are defying international concerns by ignoring calls to respond to the enforced disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Concerned governments need to drive home the point that they will not sit complacently by as disappearances and other abuses multiply in Laos.”

The Lao government has not made tangible changes toward meeting commitments made during its first UPR session in 2010. Laos should ratify core international human rights conventions; end restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the media; and bring its labor laws and regulations into line with core labor standards of the International Labor Organization. The government should investigate and end abuses in its drug detention centers and shift to voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment that is medically appropriate.

The government severely suppresses the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The penal code outlaws activities that the government deems to be “slandering” or “weakening” the state. The government strictly controls all television, radio, and print media in the country. It bars any article or mass media broadcast considered contrary to “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity.” People involved with unauthorized public protests have been sentenced to long prison terms.

Workers are similarly denied their rights, and prohibited from establishing or joining a trade union of their own choosing since all unions must be part of the government-controlled Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU). They are also unable to exercise their right to strike because of restrictions in labor law and authorities’ proven willingness to forcibly break up workers’ protests.

“This government brooks no dissent from its people, and uses rights-abusing laws and long prison terms to prevent any challenge to its power,” Robertson said. “Lao people fear their government because they know officials can act with near total impunity.”

Lao authorities also violate the rights of people held in drug detention centers. Human Rights Watch found that detainees were held against their will for months and even years, in administrative detention without due process protections such as a court ruling, ongoing judicial oversight, or an appeal mechanism. Detainees at the Somsanga center outside Vientiane are given little effective treatment, locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds, and subjected to brutal beatings.

“Compulsory detention in the Lao drug centers violates a slew of human rights,” Robertson said. “Suspected drug users are arbitrarily arrested, denied a fair trial, and subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment in the drug centers.” 

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