Wife of Missing Civil Society Leader Slams Laos on Lack of Progress in Case

The Lao government’s response at a United Nations human rights review to concerns over its efforts to find a missing prominent civil society leader demonstrates the need for authorities to accept international assistance and establish an independent commission to investigate his case, his wife said Tuesday.

Ng Shui-Meng, the wife of Sombath Somphone, said a delegation from Laos offered no new information about her husband more than two years after his disappearance while speaking about his case during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

“[The Lao government] continues to state that the investigation is continuing, but it has been over two years and there has been no progress,” she told RFA’s Lao Service following the UPR, which involves a comprehensive review of the human rights record of all U.N. member countries every four years.

“I hope that the Lao government will now accept international assistance, and set up a new and independent commission to investigate the case and find Sombath.”

Laos has previously rejected any international assistance with the investigation into Sombath's disappearance, including a U.S. offer to provide technical help to enhance the quality of some blurry images of the surveillance video footage.

Earlier Tuesday, Lao chairman of the National Committee for Human Rights Phongsavath Boupha assured the UNHCR that authorities were “seriously conducting” the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance and was open to “suggestions from any interested parties” on how to proceed.

Phongsavath rejected accusations from rights groups that government-linked organizations or criminal elements may have abducted Sombath, who received the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership—Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for his work in the fields of education and development.

Sombath went missing on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.

“These accusations can be refuted while referring to the mere fact that the incident happened in front of a police CCTV camera and the police authorities … cooperated sincerely with his wife and relatives, allowing them to view and record the CCTV footage,” Phongsavath said.

He said the investigation commission had been working under the “close supervision” of the Ministry of Public Security, adding that the attention paid by the country’s leadership was “indicative of the sincerity and seriousness of the Lao government in solving this case.”

Calls from civil society

Phongsavath comments on Sombath’s investigation followed a call from 145 civil society organizations for the Lao government to address his disappearance at the UPR session.

“While there has been no indication of any official investigation for over 18 months, numerous independent assessments, including a recent report by the International Commission of Jurists, conclude that the case remains ‘eminently solvable,’” the organizations said in an open letter published Tuesday.

“Further, UN experts have again made clear it is the Lao government’s responsibility under international law to carry out ‘an independent, thorough, credible and effective investigation,’” the letter said.

“It is simply unacceptable that a nation so seeking of and dependent on international aid has summarily refused any assistance for just such an investigation.”

The letter questioned what resolve the government has to address other rights issues in the country while it "ignores" Sombath’s case.

It called for the government to give his disappearance its “rightful place among the most central issues” at the UPR session.

On Monday, Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) called for Laos to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), which it had signed six years ago, adding that the government had failed to adequately investigate most cases of enforced disappearances, including Sombath’s.

And Phillippe Dam, acting Geneva advocacy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement Monday called the lack of progress in Sombath’s case “sadly emblematic of the Lao government’s failure to take action on a wide range of serious human rights problems.”

Ng on Tuesday welcomed the collective effort from civil society organizations and U.N. member countries on behalf of her husband.

“I am so pleased to hear so many … have urged the Lao government to take action to address the unresolved case of the disappearance of Sombath,” she said.

“I hope the message gets across loud and clear and something positive will happen soon.”

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.