Australian officials should press the government of Laos to respect human rights at the Australian-Laos human rights dialogue, scheduled for July 18-19, 2017, in Vientiane, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the Australian government. Key areas of concern in Laos are freedom of speech, association, and assembly; enforced disappearances; abusive drug detention centers; and repression of minority religious groups.

“The Lao government’s suppression of political dissent and lack of accountability for abuses stand out in a human rights record that is dire in just about every respect,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “As a major development partner of Laos, Australia can and should press for greater respect for basic rights.”

Restrictions on civil and political rights in Laos include draconian controls over freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly. The lack of fair trials of criminal suspects, widespread judicial corruption, and entrenched impunity for human rights violations are continuing problems, Human Rights Watch said.

All TV, radio, and printed publications are strictly monitored and controlled by the Lao government. The constitution prohibits all mass media activities that run contrary to “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity.”

The government has arbitrarily arrested and detained civil society activists and those deemed critical of the government. The penal code contains broad limitations that prohibit “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

In July 2015, the government enacted a cybercrime law that provides vague definitions of web content criminalized under the law, giving authorities maximum discretion in determining what can trigger a prosecution. Citizens who share information, images, or animations that the government deems to “distort truth” are subject to “re-education and disciplinary measures.”

The government not only monitors and suppresses free speech inside the country, but also that of citizens living abroad. In May, three Lao workers were fined and sentenced to prison terms of between 12 and 20 years in a secret trial after criticizing the Lao government while working in neighboring Thailand.

The government has also failed to make progress on at least 10 cases of enforced disappearance. The December 2012 enforced disappearance of prominent activist Sombath Somphone is emblematic of the government’s failure to meet its international human rights obligations. Despite CCTV camera footage showing Sombath being taken away from a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane, Lao authorities have repeatedly denied that the government took Sombath into custody or provided any information on his fate or whereabouts.

Sombath Somphone, a prominent Lao activist, has been forcibly disappeared in Vientiane since December 2012. 

© 2013 Stephen Sautter

The Lao government remains suspicious of the country’s religious minorities, particularly Protestant Christians, whom the government has long accused of having allegiances to the United States and the West. In some areas, authorities harass and repress Protestant groups. In December 2016, seven Christian families in Luang Prabang province had their identification cards, family books, and land titles confiscated by police, who forced them to leave their village after the families refused to renounce their faith. Other reports include arson attacks on Christian churches and homes, government authorities seizing harvested crops from Christians, and beatings for celebrating Christmas and refusing to renounce the Christian faith.

Laos continues to arbitrarily detain people suspected of using drugs in compulsory drug detention centers without judicial oversight or due process. Human Rights Watch found that detainees at Somsanga, the largest of eight such centers in the country, are locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds. Those who try to escape have been brutally beaten. 

Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to issue a public statement outlining serious issues of concern, as Australia did last year following the dialogue with Vietnam. The annual human rights dialogues should not be the only forum where human rights are discussed, Human Rights Watch said. Concerns about human rights should also be aired privately and publicly at the highest level, so that Australian officials can convey the serious role human rights and the rule of law play in its partnership with Laos.

“Australia should issue a public statement after the dialogue to show the people of Laos that the country’s human rights situation is a global concern.” Pearson said. “These dialogues are an opportunity to raise human rights issues frankly and forcefully but should not be the only forum to discuss abuses.”