Two years on, Laos activist still missing

Many suspect it was Sombath Somphone’s work empowering communities across Laos that led to his enfor

Sombath Somphone won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005 [AP]

In August 2005, in front of an audience in Manila, Lao development worker Sombath Somphone received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership.

Known as Asia’s Nobel Prize, it showed that Sombath’s work was appreciated not just by the people of Laos but across the region.

The award recognised Sombath’s “hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders”.

But much of that hope has now been lost. Rather than mentoring a new generation of Lao community leaders, Sombath is missing – a victim of enforced disappearance – and Lao civil society is fractured and fearful.

An enforced disappearance takes place when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their fate or whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.

And this serious human rights violation, recognised as an international crime since the aftermath of World War II, is ongoing as long as Sombath’s fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

‘Clouded in secrecy’

Laos activist’s disappearance still unsolved

Taken from beside a police post in the Lao capital Vientiane on December 15, 2012, no one has seen or heard from Sombath since. Two years on, his family and friends continue to push for answers and his safe return.

Many suspect it was Sombath’s work empowering communities across Laos that led to his enforced disappearance – the authorities’ attempt to suppress an emerging civil society.

The Lao authorities’ investigation into Sombath’s case – if any genuine investigation has in fact occurred – has been clouded in secrecy, and they continue to reject outside offers of help.

Back in 2005, the region was quick to celebrate Sombath’s achievements. But the muted response to his enforced disappearance from governments across the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) speaks volumes about the bloc’s severe limitations when it comes to human rights.

ASEAN’s Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) was established in 2009 to “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of ASEAN”.

We would assume that the enforced disappearance of a prominent member of civil society would be of great concern for everyone in ASEAN – just the type of case that AICHR should take on, pressing the Lao authorities for answers and undertaking its own investigations.

Indeed, Amnesty International understands that in May 2013, during an AICHR meeting in Jakarta, Brunei Darussalam’s representative – the Commission’s Chair at the time – made the unprecedented move of informally asking the other ASEAN representatives whether AICHR should discuss Sombath’s case.

But the Lao representative responded with an emphatic “no”, and under AICHR’s debilitating “consensus” rule that was enough to forestall any discussion, let alone action.

In the meantime, as we approach the second anniversary of Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance, individual governments across ASEAN should take action where AICHR will not.

AICHR silent

So AICHR has said nothing. It has done nothing. It has been complicit in building the wall of silence around Sombath’s enforced disappearance.

And buoyed by this inaction perhaps, having accepted certain facts about the case, the Lao authorities are now denying the usefulness of primary evidence, including CCTV footage showing Sombath being stopped by traffic police and taken away in a truck.

The man taken away is not necessarily Sombath, they say. Nothing of interest happens in that footage, they insist, adding that although they are taking the case extremely seriously, they have no leads after almost two years of investigation. But outside assistance is absolutely not required.

We have often heard regional leaders espouse the ideals of a “people-centred” ASEAN community – putting people first.

But if ASEAN is to truly become a “people-centred” community, it must be built on respect for human rights.

One important step towards this goal would be reforming AICHR – ensuring that it is fully independent of governments and capable of making decisions by majority if necessary.

It should apply international human right standards and be given a stronger protection mandate and the support it needs to be effective in promoting and protecting human rights.

Changing course

With AICHR’s Terms of Reference currently under review – including, in theory, its “consensus” rule – there is perhaps a window of opportunity for it to change course.

If it does, this might encourage governments to think twice before disappearing their own citizens, while reassuring people across ASEAN that they can speak out and contribute to the development of the region without fear.

In the meantime, as we approach the second anniversary of Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance, individual governments across ASEAN should take action where AICHR will not.

They should raise Sombath’s case at every opportunity, with the Lao government and publicly, demanding his safe return.

And they should consider whether now is the time to initiate their own investigations into persons suspected of being responsible for Sombath’s enforced disappearance, and attempt to bring them to justice in their own national courts.

Rupert Abbott is Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.