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H.E. Bounkeut Sangsomak

Representative of the Lao PDR

ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights

70A Jl. Sisingamangaraja

Jakarta 12110, Indonesia 


Re: Disappearance of Sombath Somphone


Dear H.E. Bounkeut Sangsomak,

The enforced disappearance in December 2012 of prominent development educator and Magsaysay Award winner Sombath Somphone at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, Laos, demands urgent action by Asian governments and regional bodies. Human Rights Watch in particular urges the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to immediately take up this case with the Lao authorities, conduct an impartial investigation into Sombath’s case, and make public the result of its inquiries.

As you know, Sombath was forcibly disappeared on December 15, 2012, after being stopped by traffic police at a checkpoint in Vientiane. Two days later, at a police station in Vientiane, his wife, Ng Shui Meng, was shown the CCTV camera footage showing Sombath leaving his truck and entering the police checkpoint and then later leaving in another truck. The events shown in that CCTV footage were essentially confirmed by the government in an announcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 19, and a statement published in the state-run Vientiane Times newspaper on January 4, 2013. However, the Lao government still maintains Sombath’s “disappearance” was a possible kidnapping resulting from a personal or business dispute that has nothing to do with the government.

International law defines an enforced disappearance as having occurred when a person is arrested or otherwise deprived of liberty by state officials or agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

The Lao government denies having custody of Sombath or knowing of his whereabouts. There also remain many unanswered questions about the circumstances of the disappearance and a pattern of continued official stonewalling. To date, authorities have provided little information to his wife about the official police investigation of Sombath’s disappearance or any information about what happened to him.  In her third letter to the Lao authorities, dated January 30, 2013, Ng Shui Meng provided a number of basic questions for which investigators have not provided even basic information.

Human Rights Watch views Sombath’s disappearance as a critical test case as to whether AICHR can play a meaningful role obtaining information independently and impartially in serious human rights cases in the ASEAN region. According to AICHR’s Terms of Reference, article 4.10 provides that AICHR has the right “to obtain information from ASEAN Member States on the promotion and protection of human rights.”  AICHR should interpret this article to initiate a sustained investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, including sending a team to Laos to collect information.  Using its authority under article 4.9 of its Terms of Reference, permitting the AICHR “to consult, as may be appropriate, with other national, regional and international institutions and entities concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights,” the commission should widely engage with and collect information from other bodies about Sombath’s disappearance.  The findings of AICHR’s investigations should be made public. 

Enforced disappearances violate or threaten to violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Laos is a party, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and extrajudicial execution.

Laos was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (“Convention against Enforced Disappearance”). AICHR should urge Laos to promptly ratify this convention, in line with AICHR’s mandate in article 4.5 of its Terms of Reference to “encourage ASEAN Member States to consider acceding to and ratifying international human rights instruments.” 

As a signatory to the Convention against Enforce Disappearance, Laos is obligated under article 18 of the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties to “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose” of the treaty. AICHR should call on the Lao government to ensure, consistent with the Convention against Enforce Disappearance, “no one shall be subjected to the enforced disappearance” (article 1) and that states “shall take appropriate measures to investigate acts” to investigate alleged disappearances including when committed “by persons or groups of persons acting without the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state” (article 3). 

This case should be concern to all of ASEAN, not just the AICHR. Article 7 of the ASEAN Charter, signed and ratified by all 10 ASEAN member states, provides that one purpose of ASEAN is “to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”  The Charter further elaborates in ASEAN principle 2(2)(i) that ASEAN should promote “respect for fundamental rights, protection and promotion of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.” AICHR should take a leading role on behalf of ASEAN in pressing the Lao government to live up to its international obligations. 

I look forward to hearing from you about this important matter. 


Phil Robertson

Deputy Director, Asia Division

Human Rights Watch


Cc:  H.E. Le Luong Minh, Secretary-General, ASEAN

1.        What did the police manning the police post the evening of Sombath’s disappearance on 15 December 2012 say what happened that night, and what did they see?

2.        Whether the motorcyclist who drove away Sombath’s jeep has been identified?

3.        Has Sombath’s jeep (License plate No.: 2624) been found?

4.        Whether the white truck with flashing lights that stopped at the police post and took my husband away has been identified?

5.        Has the driver of the white truck who drove away with my husband been questioned?

6.        If the footages were too blurry, as claimed by the police, has the Ministry of Public Security sought technical assistance from any other government or international security agencies? Are they too blurry for the entire Tha Deua Road CCTV cameras?

7.        Have the Lao police issued an Interpol Yellow Notification to inform colleagues in the region about Sombath’s disappearance and sought their assistance?


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