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NGOs Call for United Nations to Pressure Laos

NGOs Call for United Nations to Pressure Laos on Sombath Somphone, Human Rights, Press and Religious Freedom Violations

Geneva, Switzerland, Washington, D.C., and New York,

3 December 2014 – For Immediate Release

The Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA), the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), and a coalition of civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are a calling for United Nations' (UN) members to urge the government of Laos to cease ongoing human rights violations, religious freedom violations, and to restore fundamental human freedoms, including press freedom. They are also calling for the release of Sombath Somphone and other imprisoned Lao and Hmong political and religious dissidents.

Joining the CPPA and LMHR, in coalition, are the: Lao Human Rights Council, Inc.; the United League for Democracy in Lao, Inc.; Lao Veterans of America, Inc.; Laos Institute for Democracy; Lao Students Movement for Democracy; Hmong Advance, Inc.; Hmong Advancement, Inc.; and, others.

“We are calling for increased transparency and human rights reforms by the Lao government, military and communist party, as well as press and religious freedom,” said Philip Smith, Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA) in Washington, D.C. “The NGOs and civil society organizations have also joined together to call for the immediate release of Sombath Somphone, and others who have disappeared at the hands of the Lao military and secret police, including the leaders of the Lao Students Movement for Democracy of 1999, ethnic Hmong refugee leaders, Lao and Hmong minority Christian believers, and many other political prisoners and religious and political dissidents.”

Smith continued: “Unfortunately, in Laos, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPRD or Lao PDR) is still a one-party Marxist government largely controlled by the military and communist party; It continues to be strongly allied with Stalinist North Korea.”

Mrs. Vanida Thephsouvanh of the Paris, France-based Lao Movement for Human Rights [(LMHR or Mouvement Lao pour les Droits de l’Homme (MLDH)] expressed: “deep concerns about violations of freedom of expression, enforced disappearances and religious freedom in Laos.”

Mrs. Thephsouvanh said the LMHR along with other civil society organizations are urging United Nations' members to press the Lao PDR government for urgent reforms at its upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) schedule for the 20th of January, 2015 in Geneva.

“In advance of Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR)'s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) scheduled for 20 January 2015 in Geneva, the Geneva-based UPR-Info invited diplomats to hear the concerns of civil society organizations at a UPR pre-session in Geneva today,” stated Thephsouvanh.

“The UPR is a key mechanism for addressing the state of human rights in all 193 United Nations member states. The UPR is designed to treat all states equally with respect to their human rights records. The UPR process includes the opportunity for each state to declare what efforts they have undertaken to fulfill their obligations to respect human rights;

“We have deep concerns about violations of freedom of expression, enforced disappearances and religious freedom in Laos. Regretting that Lao PDR has not implemented recommendations it accepted at its first UPR in 2010, she urged States to raise concerns on these human rights abuses and presented concrete recommendations for human rights progress in Laos,” continued Thephsouvanh, speaking on behalf of the LMHR, which is also a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

Twenty one representatives from the Geneva-based missions attended the pre-session.

The following is the full statement made today by Mrs. Thephsouvanh in Geneva, Switzerland, regarding concerns about the serious situation in Laos (full text below in English translation):

at the Pre-session organized by UPR- Info
Geneva, 3 December 2014

I speak on behalf of the Lao Movement for Human Rights, a non- political human rights organisation based in France, a member of FIDH, the International Federation for Human Rights. We have been involved with the UPR process since the Lao PDR first review in 2010 and have closely monitored the Lao PDR’s pledges and implementation of recommendations it accepted.

The Lao PDR is a one-party State with no independent national human rights institution. No independent civil society organisations were involved in preparing the State report for the UPR. Only state-affiliated CSOs were consulted.

Therefore, it is most necessary that independent information be provided here and I thank UPR-info for making this pre-session possible.

At its first UPR in 2010, Lao PDR made a voluntary pledge to ‘’fulfill the reporting obligations under human rights treaties, cooperate with the Special Procedures by extending invitation to Special Rapporteurs on thematic issues to visit the country [...]’’ (149). To this day, the Lao PDR has 3 overdue reports: ICCPR (due in 2011), ICESCR (due in 2009) and CRPD (due in 2011).

The Lao PDR has also pending requests for visits from three Special Procedures, namely the Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions (request made in 2006), the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing (request made in 2009) and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association (requests made in 2011 and in 2013).

For the second (2nd) UPR on the Lao PDR government, scheduled for 20 January 2015, the report we submitted jointly with FIDH highlighted the situation of land rights, which has become a key issue in the country.

Today, I will focus on the following 3 issues:

1. Press freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.
2.Enforced disappearances
3. Religious freedom.

I - Press Freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly

In 2010, Laos accepted recommendations by Australia (5), Canada (27), Italy (48), the Netherlands (66), New Zealand (99), and Slovakia (115) to guarantee freedom of expression and strengthen press freedom. Although a party to the ICCPR, the Lao PDR has failed to protect the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.In practice, the Penal Code severely limits freedom of expression under the pretext of protecting national security.

There is still no free press in the Lao PDR and no legal protection for Lao journalists who do not follow the party line. The Lao PDR government still controls all TV, radio, and press outlets in the country. Self-censorship is still widespread.

In January 2012, the Ministry of Information and Culture cancelled the only live call-in radio program after farmers called in to complain about government land grabs.

In December 2012, the government expelled within 48 hours the director of a Swiss NGO for sending a letter to some donor countries, criticising the authorities for creating a hostile environment for development and civil society groups by stifling freedom of expression and association.

In September 2014, the Lao PDR enacted an internet law that prohibits online criticism of government policies and the one-party State.

Peaceful assembly is still restricted under Article 72 of the Penal Code. Three people have been imprisoned since 1999 for having planned a peaceful protest. Laos refused the recommendation made by Belgium in 2010 to release them. Another 9 persons were arrested for the same reason in November 2009 and have since disappeared.

We invite States to urge the Lao PDR to:

• Set a firm timeframe for the reform of the Penal Code and ensure that all new laws conform with international human rights standards and ensure that they are implemented.

• Repeal all provisions of the Constitution, the Penal Code, the law on media, and the new decree on internet that criminalise basic human rights and subordinate individual rights to the interests of the state.

• Extend a standing invitation to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and on Human Rights Defenders to visit the Lao PDR.

• Release all prisoners detained owing to their participation in peaceful demonstrations, and in particular the student leaders who were arrested in 1999.

II- Enforced disappearances

In 2010, the Lao PDR accepted recommendations by France (46) and Spain (122) to ratifythe International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Furthermore, the Lao PDR made a voluntary pledge ratify this Convention. To this day, the Lao PDR has not yet ratified it. However, by signing this Convention in 2008, Laos has the obligation to adhere to the Convention and to prevent and suppress the practice of enforced disappearances.

For two years now, the Lao PDR has been obstructing the investigation on the disappearance of prominent activist and civil society leader Sombath Somphone in December 2012. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that police stopped Sombath’s car at a police checkpoint. Analysis of the video footage shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers. A few weeks before his disappearance, Sombath played a key role in organizing the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), a civil society forum that preceded the official Asia-Europe Summit Meeting. At the forum, the topic of land issues was discussed openly for the first time in the Lao PDR. His disappearance is emblematic of the Lao PDR government’s lack of accountability for rights abuses.

Over the years the Lao PDR government has used enforced disappearances as a means to intimidate and silence its citizens, including the disappearance in 2007 of Somphone Khantisouk, an outspoken critic of large-scale rubber concessions that damaged the environment, and, in 2009, the enforced disappearance of 9 persons who planned peaceful demonstrations to call for social justice.

We call on States to urge the Lao PDR to:

- Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Person from Enforced Disappearance without delay followed by a time-bound implementation.

- Amend domestic laws to include specific provisions in line with the ICCPR, the CAT, and the ICPPED and implement them.

- Accept 'foreign experts’ assistance in examining evidence in the case of Sombath Somphone, including the closed circuit video taken on the night he was taken away in front of police authorities.

- Investigate all cases of enforced disappearances in a transparent manner.

III- Religious freedom

The Lao PDR accepted recommendations from Australia (7), Denmark (37), France (47), Italy (64), Netherland (90), New Zealand (98) and the United Kingdom (141) to adopt adequate measures to fulfill the right to practice religion freely.

The Lao PDR government pledged to amend Decree 92 on Religious Practice in accordance with the ICCPR. However, to date, Decree 92 has remained unchanged. Decree 92 still contains numerous mechanisms for government control of, and interference in, religious activities. Decree 92 regulates up to the smallest detail of control that the government exercises over religious organizations.

In the Lao PDR, Christian minorities in remote areas remain persecuted.

Repression of Christians, mainly Protestants, has not diminished. Throughout 2014, in remote areas of every part of the Lao PDR, Christians have been victims of arbitrary arrest, intimidation, and forced eviction from their village by the authorities for practicing their faith. The central government denied responsibilities for the abuses by blaming local authorities. But Vientiane has never taken any action to hold local authorities accountable. Christians also face repression on the basis of ethnicity as many of them belong to ethnic minorities.

We invite States to urge Laos to:

- Amend Decree 92 on Religious Practice to bring it in line with Article 18 of the ICCPR.

- Implement measures through revised legislation to protect all citizens from discrimination due to their religion.

- End all restrictions on the right to practice one's religion of choice without discrimination.

- Prosecute all those involved in the persecution of religious groups.


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