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Lao people walk past their country flag, in the capital Vientiane, Laos.  © 2013 AP Photo/Manish Swarup

(Sydney) – The Australian government should press Lao government leaders to end their systemic human rights violations when the two governments meet for a bilateral rights dialogue, Human Rights Watch said today. The Australia-Laos 8th bilateral human rights dialogue is scheduled for November 23, 2023, in Canberra.

A Human Rights Watch submission to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) highlights enforced disappearances and unsolved abductions in Laos. Australian officials should use the dialogue to send a clear public message that respect for human rights is an integral part of their relationship with Laos.

“Australian officials should publicly and clearly call on the Lao government to respect freedom of expression and association, and end the cruel practice of forcibly disappearing its critics,” said Daniela Gavshon, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Australia should emphasize that failure by the Lao government to make clear progress on human rights issues will adversely affect bilateral relations.”

Human Rights Watch detailed the case of Sombath Somphone, a prominent social activist whom the authorities forcibly disappeared at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, the capital, in 2012. The Lao government continues to ignore its international legal obligations to thoroughly investigate Sombath’s disappearance and prosecute those responsible, and to provide adequate reparations for Sombath and his family.

Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about Od Savayong, a well-known human rights defender and member of the Free Lao group, who has not been seen since August 2019, and his fellow Free Lao group member, Phetphouthon Philachane, who disappeared three months later. Human Rights Watch identified several other Lao activists forcibly disappeared or killed in recent years.

Human Rights Watch also raised the disappearances of Ittiphol Sukpaen, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, and Surachai Danwattananusorn, all Thai nationals living in Laos, who had been critical of the Thai monarchy. Human Rights Watch expressed serious concerns about the transnational repression of human rights activists by Thailand and Laos.

The Australian government should press the Lao government to disclose the whereabouts of those forcibly disappeared, ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and enact appropriate implementing legislation, and end any policy or practice in conjunction with the Thai government for the repression of human rights activists.

“Australia should make clear demands of the Lao government to end its business-as-usual impunity,” Gavshon said. “Laos needs to locate the disappeared, and fully investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for abuses to become a respected actor in the region.”

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