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(Sydney) – Australia should use its upcoming human rights dialogue with Laos to raise human rights concerns and set concrete benchmarks for reform, Human Rights Watch said today. The dialogue, scheduled to be held in Canberra on March 5, 2015, is a crucial opportunity to push the government of Laos to take real action on rights ahead of Laos chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2016.

In a submission to the Australian government, Human Rights Watch urged officials to raise concerns with their Lao counterparts about the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, increased restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, violations of labor rights, and abusive drug detention centers.

“Australia should make sure that this human rights dialogue doesn’t become just an exercise in empty rhetoric,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “It’s an opportunity to really press the Lao government on sensitive issues and demand meaningful outcomes.”

This is the fourth such dialogue with Laos, and the first one to be held in Australia. Australia committed funding from 2012 to 2015 to support the Lao government’s human rights activities. The Australian government should review all assistance in funding, programming, and activities in Laos to ensure that it is not contributing to policies and programs that violate human rights.

Laos has repeatedly responded with silence or denial to all questions about the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone in Vientiane in December 2012. He was last seen on the evening of December 15, 2012, in Vientiane. Lao public surveillance CCTV footage revealed that police stopped Sombath’s car at a police post. Within minutes after being stopped, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. Analysis of the video shows that Sombath Somphone was taken away in the presence of police officers who witnessed the abduction and failed to intervene – a fact that strongly suggests government complicity.

Australia should use this opportunity to press Lao for information about his fate or whereabouts. At the United Nations Human Rights Council review of Laos in Geneva in January 2015, Australia had called for a credible investigation into Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance and raised concerns about Internet censorship and shrinking space for civil society on human rights.

Australia should back up its public statements at the Human Rights Council with strong public and private messages at the human rights dialogue. The Lao government has been intensifying its crackdown on freedom of speech, association, and assembly. In September 2014, the government adopted a restrictive Internet decree that sharply limits the types of information that can be shared, effectively expanding government interference and control. Australia should encourage the government of Laos to reform this decree to ensure that it aligns with international standards protecting freedom of speech and expression.

The Lao government violates the right to freedom of association for workers both in law and in practice. All unions must be part of the government-controlled Lao Federation of Trade Unions. Subsequently, all workers are prohibited from establishing or joining a trade union of their choosing. Australia should get a firm commitment from the Lao government to amend the Trade Union Act and the Labor Act to bring them into full compliance with international labor standards.

The Lao government also maintains a system of drug detention centers, where people suspected of using drugs, beggars, homeless people, children, and people with mental illness are held without a court ruling, judicial oversight, or an ability to appeal. Australia should urge Laos to commit to closing all drug detention centers and carry out prompt investigations into allegations of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in these centers.

“Australia should make its dialogues with Lao worthwhile by issuing public statements of outcomes that set clear benchmarks for improvement,” Pearson said. “If Laos wants Australia’s continuing support on human rights, it needs to answer where Sombath Somphone is, commit to measurable changes, and show signs of genuine reform.”

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