Laos: Government urged to address land rights issues and protect rights defenders

The Lao government must urgently address land rights issues and protect land and environmental rights defenders, FIDH and its member organization, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), said today.

Paris, Bangkok, 18 June 2014: The Lao government must urgently address land rights issues and protect land and environmental rights defenders, FIDH and its member organization, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), said today.

The two organizations made the call in their submission for the UN Human Rights Council’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos, which will be held in January-February 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland.

“The government’s serious land rights abuses, mismanagement, and corruption have created a new class of rural poor. As long as laws are not properly implemented, Lao citizens will remain vulnerable against land rights violations,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji. “A coherent legal framework for the approval and management of land concessions is urgently needed. The Lao government must reform land governance to ensure total transparency, accountability, and people’s participation in decision-making,” he urged.

The ongoing award of long-term land leases and concessions to domestic and foreign investors has resulted in widespread land confiscation without adequate compensation. Whole communities have been forced from their land, which has negatively affected the livelihoods of its residents. Out of the 115 recommendations the Lao government accepted at its last UPR in May 2010, 14 called on the government to continue efforts to eradicate poverty, ensure sustainable development, and to improve the standards of living, particularly in rural and remote areas. However, the human rights implications of large-scale land leases and concessions granted by the Lao government are serious, far-reaching, and inconsistent with Laos’ commitments at its last UPR.

Over the past four years, the Lao PDR government has done little to address the serious land rights issues detailed in the FIDH-LMHR joint UPR submission. In addition, the government has harassed, intimidated, and arbitrarily detained those who expressed their grievances, including land and environmental rights defenders. [1] The government’s suppression of all expressions of dissent has targeted villagers and activists who protested against the negative impact of investment projects involving land leases and concessions. Authorities also harassed, threatened, and arbitrarily detained farmers and activists who sought justice and redress for land grabbing.

In addition, the government targeted human rights defenders who worked with communities affected by land concessions and have advocated for a more sustainable and all-inclusive form of socio-economic development.

The most striking example was the disappearance of prominent civil society leader and human rights defender Mr. Sombath Somphone. Sombath was last seen on the evening of 15 December 2012 in Vientiane. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed 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 CCTV footage showed that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers. This fact supports a finding of government complicity.

The disappearance of Sombath Somphone is not an isolated case. To this day, the whereabouts of 10 other activists who campaigned for human rights, democracy, and land and environmental rights remain unknown.

On 2 November 2009, security forces in various locations across the country arbitrarily detained nine people – two women and seven men – who had planned peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy, justice, and respect for their land rights. The government has consistently failed to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the nine.

Also unknown are the whereabouts of Mr. Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an ecotourism guesthouse and an outspoken critic of Chinese-sponsored agricultural projects that were damaging the environment in the Northern Province of Luang Namtha. He disappeared after uniformed men abducted him in January 2007.

“The government’s ongoing failure to protect human rights defenders like Sombath Somphone is at odds with its aspiration to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council,” said LMHR President Vanida Thepsouvanh. “Until the Lao government seriously investigates cases of disappearances and holds perpetrators accountable, the international community must oppose Vientiane’s bid for council membership,” she urged.