Civic space in Laos is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The fundamental freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly remain severely restricted while impunity persists in cases of enforced disappearance, attacks and extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders and activists.

In September 2023, Laos took over the chairmanship the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN. Few are expecting any leadership from the country on human rights.

In November 2023, the 8th Australia-Lao PDR Human Rights dialogue was held where the parties addressed various human rights concerns including civil and political rights. The Laos government, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) also signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a formal partnership in promoting and protecting human rights in Laos under the Australia-Laos Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program (HRTCP).

In recent months, UN experts have raised concerns about a pattern of summary executions and enforced disappearance of human rights defenders. They also seeks answers on the protection of women human rights defenders. Civil society has continued to expose attacks on human rights defenders. There has still been no accountability for the 2012 disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone. Restrictions on religious freedom continue while sim-card registration raises concerns of surveillance and violations of privacy.


UN expert highlights pattern of summary executions and enforced disappearance targeting human rights defenders

In a statement on 22nd September 2023, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, highlighted eight cases of unresolved rights violations targeting human rights defenders who are members of the Free Laos movement. The statement was endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

The cases concerned include the killings of Leokham Losavath in June 2020, a pro-democracy activist from Oudomxay province; Bounsuan Kitiyano, a pro-democracy activist living in Thailand under refugee status, whose body was found in May 2023 near the Thai-Laos border; and Phouvong Sayaseng who was killed after his enforced disappearance in July 2020.

The Special Rapporteur also raised cases of arbitrary detention and violations of fair trial against three democracy activists, Lodkham Thammavong, Soukane Chaithad and Somphone Phimmasone who were all arrested in May 2016, tried in secret and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison after taking part in a pro-democracy protest in front of the Lao Embassy in Thailand.

There were also cases of enforced disappearances of pro-democracy activists Phetphouthone Philachanh, who was arrested by law enforcement in Vientiane in November 2019, and Od Sayavong, who disappeared in August 2019 while living in Bangkok under refugee status. Their whereabouts are unknown to this day.

The Special Rapporteur Lawlor criticised the ineffectiveness of investigations into these enforced disappearances. She also pointed to a trend of suspected extra-territorial rendition, given that a number of these human rights defenders were based in Thailand at the time of their deprivation of liberty and subsequent enforced disappearance.

On 24th November 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts made public a joint communication to the Lao government on 13th September 2023 with regard to these cases.

UN experts calls on government not to deport human rights defenders at risk

In October 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders urged the Lao government “not to deport people, including human rights defenders, to countries where there are substantial grounds to believe that they would face an imminent risk of enforced disappearance, torture, summary execution and other grave human rights violations.”

This warning followed reports that prominent Chinese human rights defender and lawyer, Lu Siwei, was deported in September 2023 from Lao to the People’s Republic of China where he might be subjected to serious harm, including enforced disappearance.

As previously documented, in July 2023, Lu Siwei was detained by the authorities in Laos at the Thanaleng railway station near the Lao-Thai border as he was about to board a train to Thailand where he was scheduled to take a flight to the United States to reunite with his family. On 14th September 2023, it was reported that Lu Siwei had been deported to China.

CEDAW Committee seeks answers on the protection of women human rights defenders

In November 2023, ahead of its review in 2024, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) asked the government to provide information on steps taken to review the registration requirements for civil society and non-governmental organisations, to ensure that organisations, in particular women’s rights organizations, can undertake their activities without undue restrictions.

The CEDAW committee also asked for measures taken to ensure that women human rights defenders can peacefully carry out their advocacy for women’s human rights, free from any risk of criminal prosecution and prison sentences. The committee also asked for steps taken towards releasing former women migrant workers, detained following their posts on social media criticising the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations, whose detention has been declared arbitrary by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and measures taken to protect indigenous women human rights defenders against human rights violations, including gender-based violence.

Civil society leader exposes attacks on human rights defenders

On 20th December 2023, Emilie Palamy Pradichit, Founder & Executive Director of Manushya Foundation, took part in an impactful discussion titled “Enforced Disappearance in Laos and Southeast Asia”.

She exposed the authoritarian tactics of the Lao government, shedding light on their violation of human rights through attacks, transnational repression, and enforced disappearances targeting Lao citizens and human rights defenders.

She said: “We’re seeing the country being led by one political party, a few rich families in the country, and human rights defenders who are trying to speak the truth to power, facing attacks, facing repression, facing intimidation, and enforced disappearance, attempted killing like in the case of Jack.”

Emilie emphasized the pivotal roles played by donors and the diplomatic community, urging them not only to engage through the UN system but to genuinely hold the Laos government accountable

11 years since the disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone

15th December 2023 marked the 11th year of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, prominent community development activist and civil society leader. Civil society groups issued a condemnation to the Lao government over its continued failure to establish Sombath’s fate and whereabouts. The group also highlighted a pattern of “inaction, negligence, and obfuscation” that Lao authorities have continuously engaged in for over a decade.

As previously documented, Sombath was abducted in December 2012 after he criticised the government on land deals which risked leaving thousands homeless in Laos. Sombath was last seen at a police checkpoint in Vientiane on the evening of 15th December 2012. Footage from a traffic CCTV camera showed police officers standing by as unknown individuals forced Sombath into a vehicle while another drove Sombath’s vehicle away. Despite international pressure, there has been no credible investigation into his disappearance.

Previously in September 2023, as part of its follow-up submission to the Concluding Observations made on its initial report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the Lao government claimed that it “had never stopped trying to find the truth” and even established a Task Force specifically to investigate the case. The government also claimed that the Task Force operates on the basis of “​​transparency, impartiality and accountability, including the use of modern investigative techniques in consistence with international standards by the capable inquiry officials”.

Civil society groups denounced the claim as false and misleading as existing evidence shows a lack of transparency from the government, which has been involved in the cover-up since the day of Sombath’s disappearance combined with the ongoing failure to provide additional information on the steps it had taken in locating Sombath and its continued disregard of Sombath’s wife Shui Meng Ng.

Restrictions on religious freedom continue

Christians continued to be prosecuted and live under intense scrutiny as the Communist authorities consider most church meetings ‘illegal gatherings’.

In September 2023, local authorities, along with residents, demolished the homes of 10 Christian families, forcing them to leave three villages in Saravan Province’s Samoey District. According to Radio Free Asia, the district authorities later facilitated the allocation of new land in one of the villages for the families to reconstruct their homes. However, no compensation or financial assistance was offered to them.

On 1st October 2023, the deputy village chief and local security forces reportedly halted the worship service at a house church in Khampou village in Savannakhet Province. Eighteen individuals were warned of potential arrest and faced significant fines if they persisted in practising their religion.

(UN ຍົກບັນຫາເຣື່ອງສິດທິມະນຸສໃນ ລາວ ເຊັ່ນ: ການຮີບຮ້ອນປະຫານນັກໂທສ, ການບັງຄັບໃຊ້ກົດຫມາຍ ບຸກຄົນຫາຍສາບສູນ ແລະການເນຣະເທສນັກເຄື່ອນໄຫວ)