Laos: UN member states must continue to ask “Where is Sombath?” during human rights review

19 July 2019

FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights

and its member organization for Laos

Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)

Joint press release

Paris, 18 July 2019: United Nations (UN) member states must use the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos to continue to demand the Lao government determine the fate or whereabouts of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) urged today.

The two organizations made the call in their joint submission for the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos, which is scheduled to be held in January-February 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Sombath’s case is emblematic of the pervasive culture of impunity for human rights violations in Laos and the climate of fear that has been gripping local civil society. The international community must continue to press the Lao government to deliver justice for Sombath and his family and hold those responsible for his enforced disappearance accountable,” said FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard.

In January 2015, 10 UN member states (Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK) recommended the Lao government conduct an adequate investigation into Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance.

In July 2018, the government said it had been “trying very hard” to investigate Sombath’s disappearance. However, this statement has been contradicted by the government’s ongoing refusal to accept international assistance in conducting the probe and to provide any details about the progress of its investigation.

Sombath Somphone 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, a fact that supports a finding of government complicity.

“The UPR represents a rare opportunity for all UN member states to engage the Lao government on human rights issues. The international community should be relentless in its calls on the Lao government to address the serious and systematic human rights violations that continue to occur in the country,” said LMHR President Vanida Thephsouvanh.

The joint FIDH-LMHR submission focuses on the following human rights issues in Laos since the second UPR cycle, which began in January 2015: freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of association; enforced disappearances; torture; prison conditions; freedom of religion or belief; the right to participate in the design and implementation of infrastructure and investment projects; and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

Press contacts

FIDH: Andrea Giorgetta (English) – Tel: +66886117722 (Bangkok)

LMHR: Vanida Thephsouvanh (French, English, Lao) – Tel: +33160065706 (Paris)

More than 35 countries defend China over mass detention of Uighur Muslims in UN letter – The Independent

16 July 2019

More than 30 countries have signed a letter defending China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region in response to Western criticism.

Ambassadors of 37 states from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America praised China’s “contribution to the international human rights cause” in the letter sent to the UN’s Human Rights Council on Friday.

The states, including prominent members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, said China had faced terrorism, separatism and religious extremism in Xinjiang.

But the signatories said China had restored peace and security in the region through counterterrorism measures and vocational training.

“We note with appreciation that human rights are respected and protected in China in the process of counterterrorism and de-radicalisation,” the letter read.

The letter was a riposte to the action taken by 22 mainly European countries at the start of the week.

They had urged China to halt the arbitrary detention of Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighurs and other minority groups, which academics and human rights groups estimate have swept around one million people into forced re-education.

China did not sign the letter submitted on Friday, but the text closely echoed the language of statements delivered by Chinese diplomats to the council on Thursday and Friday.

China condemned the “distortions” and “hypocrisy” of Western media and the countries criticising its actions in Xinjiang. It said that the region’s people “feel much better and much more happy and secure”.

The letter from the 37 countries lauded China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” and particularly its contribution to “protecting and promoting human rights through development”.

This is a theme China has advanced in separate resolutions to counterbalance the Western attention to political and civil rights.

Signers of the pro-China letter, including Russia, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, also took the opportunity to repeat a position frequently expressed in the UN’s Human Rights Council opposing the “naming and shaming and publicly exerting pressure on other countries” by calling them to account for human rights violations.

New York Times

ANFREL Launches IEOM Report on Thai General Election 2019

8 July 2019

The Asian Network for Free Elections, being the only accredited international election observation group for Thailand’s 2019 General Election, held a panel discussion in Bangkok on 21 June 2019 to present its final International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) report.

In its report, “ANFREL found the 2019 Thai General Election lacking the most important element that makes elections democratic: a healthy political climate. Although the election was peaceful and without obstruction, its legitimacy is questionable”, said  its executive director, Chandanie Watawala. In part, this was because the Thai people were denied access to information that is so vital in any electoral process.

The final mission report of ANFREL’s IEOM emphasized that the election operated in a legal environment designed to prop up the ruling establishment while severely curtailing press freedom and the right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression for individuals and the media in the lead up to the 2019 Thai general election was more controlled and restricted than during the 2011 general election.

The report was based on the findings gathered by its observers during the entire election period, including election preparation, election day processes, and electoral dispute resolution mechanisms. ANFREL’s assessment is the product of a comprehensive methodology based on international standards and best practices for elections. The  mission was composed of 58 international election observers, including two electoral analysts.

Read full report by clicking on the link below:

Thai 2019 General Election: A Missed Opportunity for Democracy

Endless debate on UN reform – The Jakarta Post

5 July 2019

Indonesia has set its top priorities and one special item that it wants to achieve during its two-year term as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which ends in December 2020. As the frontline executor of policy, the Foreign Ministry is expected to stick to achievable targets, like a UN resolution to save the lives of millions of Rohingya in Myamar and at the Bangladeshi border.

Indonesia tends to speak and act on behalf of developing countries in the face of much richer and more advanced nations. These efforts have often been effective and workable, but they have not resulted in changes on many occasions.

For example, Indonesia has for almost four decades pushed in vain for UNSC reform. On this international platform, reforming the UNSC means questioning the veto power of the five permanent members and expanding the big five by giving veto power to a representative country of developing nations, which form the majority in the UN.

“Our position is basically that the membership of the UN Security Council must be adjusted to the situation and the number of countries in the world today,” said Febrian Ruddyard, the Foreign Ministry’s director general for multilateral cooperation.

Indonesia apparently hopes its UNSC nonpermanent member status will amplify its voice on the reform issue and elicit a response from the UN’s powerful members. Experience has shown, however, that such antiestablishment calls fall on deaf ears.

Indonesia therefore needs to set more realistic targets and fight it out, especially the four priority issues — promoting world peace, engendering synergy between regional groupings and the UN to maintain peace and stability, encouraging cooperation in the fight against terrorism, extremism and radicalism, and pushing for concerted efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) — as well as pay special attention to the Palestine issue.

Its consistent participation in UN peacekeeping missions, experience in counterterrorism and democratic credentials will surely help Indonesia convince the UN to support its priority agenda while contributing to world peace and order, for which the UN was founded.

As a regular provider of Blue Helmet troops, Indonesia is committed to boosting peacekeeping and peacebuilding and to improving the quality and effectiveness of peacekeeping missions.

In the area of terrorism, extremism and radicalism eradication, Indonesia is considered a role model for championing law enforcement, unlike other countries that have pursued extrajudicial measures.

While the four priorities and the Palestine issue may not be realized anytime soon, or even by the time Indonesia completes its term on the UNSC next year, the country’s two-year tenure would be more relevant if the impacts are felt at home and in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia’s push for a resolution on the Rohingya crisis will be meaningful, given the many years that the minority Muslim people have endured their ordeal. It will be a Herculean task, because a resolution requires the support of at least nine member countries — and veto powers apply. If Indonesia realizes a resolution, it will be a landmark diplomatic achievement for the country in advancing humanity for the world.

Oral Update to 41st Session of the Human Rights Council

3 July 2019

Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

Mr President, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to update you on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

I welcome the recent announcement by the Government that the “Other Accounts” of the extractive industry State-owned economic enterprises will be abolished and all their income will be transferred to the Union Government. I call on the Government to ensure that this is a reform that translates into better respect for human rights. This is an opportunity for the Government to improve transparency in the sector and to ensure that departments tasked with enforcing environmental and social safeguards are properly resourced.

Mr President,

Unfortunately, despite this positive development, the situation continues to deteriorate in several areas. In May, police officers using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse villagers staging a sit-in protest outside the coal powered Alpha Cement Factory in Mandalay Region injured many people. The villagers were protesting the serious harm the factory’s expansion may cause to the environment, health and livelihoods as a result of pollution, and fears it will lead to land seizures. Shockingly, a villager who was arrested later died in police custody despite being in good health before his arrest. Ko Nanda, a reporter who was covering the protests, was also arrested and remains unjustly detained in Ohboe prison facing multiple criminal charges.

Villagers living near the coal-powered Tigyit power plant in Taunggyi, Shan State have been suffering severe health problems and are demanding the power plant’s operations be stopped and compensation provided. Independent scientific testing and expert analysis found that the air and water surrounding the power plant contains pollutants and concentrations of toxic heavy metals at levels which greatly exceed the national guidelines. Hair samples taken from children living in the area contained elevated levels of highly toxic elements including arsenic, cadmium and mercury.

The mud slide in Hpakant that killed 54 jade miners in April is a stark reminder of the urgent need for enforcement of environmental regulations. Accidents of this kind occur regularly, and this predictable tragedy could and should have been avoided. The legal framework for jade mining is not effective and was worsened by the new Gemstone Law. While plans for environmental management reforms have stalled, thousands of lives have been destroyed over many years by the devastating impact of the jade mining in Hpakant. I urge the Government to consider declaring an environmental emergency in Hpakant and to halt all mining indefinitely until a proper regulatory framework that meets international standards can be adopted and enforced; not just a three-month moratorium during the rainy season.

It is the duty of the Government and the responsibility of companies to ensure that environmental safeguards are adequate, implemented and complied with to protect people. Local communities must be empowered with access to proper grievance mechanisms and have their concerns addressed comprehensively, not face deception or reprisals for speaking out.

Friends and colleagues,

Muslims across the country continue to be subjected to harassment and intimidation led by ultra-nationalist groups. Extremist monk Wirathu has been charged with sedition regarding his alleged disrespect of the State Counsellor. That he faces imprisonment for this and not for inciting violence against Myanmar’s Muslim communities is deeply troubling. Local administrators have prevented mosques from opening in Sagaing and allowed armed mobs to force Muslim prayer sites to close in Yangon, despite contrary directives from Regional Governments. I am wearing a white rose today to express my support for the White Rose Campaign, initiated by a Buddhist monk who handed flowers to Muslim worshippers, and spread across the country to mark the end of Ramadan.

Freedom of expression continues to be stifled through draconian laws used to suppress criticism of the Tatmadaw. Film director and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi has been arrested and detained since April for allegedly criticising the military. I am deeply concerned for his health as he is seriously ill with liver cancer. Seven members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe are being held in Insein prison following a performance that satirised the Tatmadaw. Ye Ni, editor of the Irrawaddy, is facing trial and Aung Marm Oo, editor of the Development Media Group based in Rakhine has been forced into hiding after criminal complaints were filed against him. Both cases relate to reporting on the conflict in Rakhine State. Charges should be dropped in all these cases.

I repeat my call for the Government to take urgent and decisive action on reforming repressive laws and the judiciary. Prosecutors must be empowered to withdraw cases where there would be a miscarriage of justice in order to uphold the rule of law.

Distinguished delegates,

The Tatmadaw has extended its unilateral ceasefire in the north and east of Myanmar to 31 August, and the Shan State Progressive Party and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, who had been engaging in serious hostilities since late 2018, announced a bilateral ceasefire in May. These developments are welcome, but are not enough to bring about lasting peace that leads to security and stability in northern Myanmar, such that over 100,000 people who have been displaced now for eight years feel safe to return home.

I have not observed any progress in the peace process and I am disturbed that the Tatmadaw continues to exclude the Arakan Army from meaningful involvement in negotiations. As I have said before, an open, inclusive and participatory process is one that will bring about long-lasting sustainable peace in Myanmar. I am also seriously concerned by reports that the Tatmadaw requested Thai authorities to stop a meeting of ethnic armed organisationsscheduled in Thailand, and I note this is not the first time this has occurred.

Mr. President,

The conflict with the Arakan Army in northern Rakhine State and parts of southern Chin State has continued over the past few months and the impact on civilians is devastating. Many acts of the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army violate international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes, as well as violating human rights. I again call on all parties to uphold international humanitarian law and respect human rights.

More than 35,000 people are now estimated to have been displaced by the conflict in the last six months. At least 95,000 people are without access to basic and essential services due to movement restrictions on civilians and the Government’s continuing blockage of aid organisations.

Indiscriminate attacks in and around villages as well as targeting of civilians and civilian objects has left scores of civilians wounded and dead. This includes children like ten-year-old Athein Chae and eight-year-old Husson Shofi from Kyauktaw township, killed in separate incidents in May. There have been reports of the Tatmadaw using forced labour. The Arakan Army has reportedly abducted and detained civilians, including 12 construction workers in Paletwa, and I am concerned about their situation.

There are deeply disturbing reports of civilians, mostly ethnic Rakhine men, being disappeared, or detained and interrogated by the Tatmadaw on suspicion of association with the Arakan Army. Several of them have died while in the Tatmadaw’s custody.   

In an alarming event in April, a military helicopter opened fire on a group of Rohingya men and boys who were collecting bamboo in Buthidaung township. The helicopter reportedly circled the group several times, firing as the men and boys were fleeing, killing six and injuring thirteen.

Just last week, the Government ordered a mobile internet shutdown in the region for security reasons while more troops were reportedly deployed. The information blackout is imperilling villagers, further obstructing the humanitarian response and shielding the military operations from scrutiny. There has already been a reported rise in custodial deaths since the shutdown. Moreover, without internet services, families relying on remittances sent by relatives are facing further hardship.

We are witness to an ongoing tragedy in Rakhine State, where less than two years ago horrific atrocities were inflicted on the Rohingya, and the civilian population is once again being subjected to grievous human rights violations by security forces. Troops under the control of the Western Command are active again and Light Infantry Divisions from other parts of the country have been deployed to the region. So long as impunity for alleged crimes prevails, we will continue to bear witness to flagrant violations of rights perpetrated against ethnic minority populations in the name of counterinsurgency, entrenching grievances and prolonging insecurity and instability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am concerned that the international community is beginning to overlook the situation of over a million Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. They are subject to a human rights crisis, responsibility for which lies with Myanmar. It is entirely their responsibility to bring about all necessary conditions for all the people they forcibly drove out to return and they are entirely failing to do so. The remaining Rohingya in Myanmar continue to be denied their rights and are persecuted by authorities, making returns from Bangladesh impossible at this time. However, conversations I have had with many refugees reveal they wish to return to Myanmar, but only when they know that they will be safe; they will have citizenship and equal rights with the rest of the population of Myanmar; and they will have their property returned to them.

Mr President,

It is clear to me that accountability cannot be achieved in the domestic arena. This comes as the military announced in March that it had established an “investigative court” to respond to allegations made by the UN and non-government organisations. Its function and how it will work in parallel to the Independent Commission of Enquiry are not apparent. I remain highly concerned about the Commission, which announced in May that its staff had finallyundertaken training on international standards for evidence collection and international criminal justice nearly a year after it was established and shortly before it is due to submit its report to the President. This further demonstrates it does not have the capacity to bring justice to victims or be a credible form of accountability.

I reiterate what I have now said many times, that the international community must ensure justice is brought about. I am disappointed that nine months following the resolution establishing it, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar is still not functioning. While the expectation has always been that the Mechanism will succeed the work of the Fact Finding Mission, due to the slow pace of its operationalisation, there is a real risk that there will be a gap in investigations into the most serious international crimes and violations of international law in Myanmar. Member States must remain engaged and I urge them to stress to all relevant UN offices that the Mechanism needs to be expeditiously staffed and resourced so that it can begin to fulfil its mandate by the Council’s next session. Otherwise, there will only be further delay in the justice owed to the people of Myanmar.

I welcome the decision by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to pursue a case at the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention. While this course of action alone will not in itself bring comprehensive accountability, it is appropriate to consider the responsibility of the State itself in violating international law and to pursue all avenues to seek remedies for victims.

I repeat the call I made in the Council’s previous session that the situation of Myanmar must be referred to the International Criminal Court, and that alternatively the international community establish an independent tribunal in which perpetrators of international crimes may be tried. It is incumbent on the Security Council to find a way to put differences aside and unite in relation to Myanmar by coming out with a strong resolution.

With the situation not improving, and serious violations taking place on a regular basis, I implore Member States to demonstrate their commitment to human rights in Myanmar.By now, we have all read the report of Mr Rosenthal, who found that there was a systemic failure of the United Nations in Myanmar. This is not new information. I raised issues regarding the United Nations’ conduct and called for a full independent review in consecutive reports. In his assessment, the United Nations failure also included failure by Member States. I will close by posing a question to all Member States: are you going to continue to fail to protect all the people of Myanmar?

MARUAH Statement on 2018 Global Slavery Index

30 June 2019

MARUAH states that the Singapore government needs to take more active action to address the issue of modern slavery in Singapore. A study by the Walk Free Foundation found that there is an estimated 19,000 people (or 3.4% of the population) in Singapore who are entrapped in slave-like conditions, placing Singapore in 97th place out of 167 countries in the 2018 Global Slavery Index (GSI). The definition of modern slavery used in the report includes practices like forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking.

MARUAH severely condemns the phenomenon of modern slavery, which is a crime of outrageous abuses in human rights. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Today, slavery takes on various forms – sometimes quite different from the typical practices of being caged and abused – yet they retain many aspects of these practices. Victims continue to work in abysmal conditions – in isolation without contact with their loved ones, no rest days, and in some cases, being starved, beaten, and denied full salary. The conditions under which some of them work are inhumane and torturous, with little to no freedom and rights.

Unbeknownst to many, Singapore is a hotspot for human trafficking activities, with migrant workers being the most vulnerable to such illegal activities. The 2019 US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report places Singapore in Tier 2, out of three categories. The report stated that foreign work permit holders, who make up more than a quarter of the total labour force in Singapore, are especially vulnerable to trafficking through debt bondage and threats. Based on standards provided by the International Labour Office and the European Commission, any individual who has encountered deceptive recruitment, exploitation and coercion is considered to have been trafficked.

There has been an increasing body of work on migrant workers in Singapore, including a research study jointly done by the SMU and a non-profit organization, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). The study found that many migrant workers incur large amounts of debt to recruitment agents in their home countries in order to secure a job in Singapore, only to realise that they have been deceived of the actual working conditions and salary when they reach Singapore. Often, these migrant workers end up receiving a much lower salary than promised and have to work long hours with no off days. However, these workers lack bargaining power and often accept such poor conditions due to the deep fear (or explicit threats) of deportation, which would mean they lose their income, have debts they cannot clear, families to feed and children in school.

Foreign domestic workers were also found to be vulnerable to forced labour and human rights abuses by another study conducted by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Liberty Shared as their work takes place in the private realm away from public scrutiny. The supply chains need stricter regulations and governance to address the loopholes that still exist, such as the situation that many migrant workers are reluctant to testify in court or make claims against their employers due to the fear of deportation. A 2015 study by the Singapore Management University (SMU) found that nearly two thirds of migrant workers with injuries or salary claims, brought to the notice of the Ministry of Manpower, had been threatened with deportation.

Besides migrant workers, another group that can fall prey to modern slavery conditions, is the low-income population. In 2018, Member of Parliament (MP) Zainal Sapari identified a situation which he termed “slavery of the poor” in one of his parliamentary speeches. He argued that low-income workers, especially those working in the cleaning, security and landscape sectors, are prone to being taken advantage of by employers because of the limited job options they have and lack of knowledge of their rights. He also noted that many of these workers will never have the means to retire, which he argues to be a form of slavery in itself as they are entrapped in such circumstances for life. The recent Minimum Income Standards study conducted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, did show that some elderly in Singapore would never have the means to retire, as similar view that MP Mr Zainal too shared,  due to inadequate sustainable work incomes, savings and public assistance transfers. MARUAH appreciates Mr Zainal’s efforts in raising this issue in Parliament and for fighting for the rights of low-income workers in Singapore.

According to the 2018 GSI, Singapore scored a grade of CCC[1] in the Government Response Rating, with countries that fall under this rating described as having a “limited response to modern slavery, with limited victim support services”. Singapore was also specifically mentioned in the report repeatedly as one of the countries that is taking relatively little action when compared to the scale of the problem and amount of resources available. Being labelled as having a weak response relative to GDP sends a wrong signal to the international community that we, in Singapore, show little regard for human rights issues, especially the severe violations that occur within modern slavery.

MARUAH is disappointed with Singapore’s poor rating in the 2018 GSI. MARUAH urges the Singapore government to recognize the fact that modern slavery is taking place in the country. As a high-income economy with high levels of resources, the government is obliged to do more to protect the rights of the groups that are susceptible to modern slavery, including migrant workers and the low-income (elderly) population in Singapore.

MARUAH Singapore

For more information, the full report of the 2018 Global Slavery Index can be accessed here:

[1] The Government Response Rating is based on a score out of a maximum of 100; the best rating being AAA and the worst, D. Singapore scored 32.8/100, which puts it under the rating CCC. The full description of the rating CCC is: The government has a limited response to modern slavery, with limited victim support services, a criminal justice framework that criminalises some forms of modern slavery, and has policies that provide some protection for those vulnerable to modern slavery. There may be evidence of a National Action Plan and/or national coordination body. There may be evidence that some government policies and practices may criminalise and/or deport victims and/or facilitate slavery. Services may be largely provided by IOs/NGOs with international funding, with limited government funding or in-kind support. For more information on the ratings, please refer to

MARUAH Statement on World Refugee Day (20 June 2019)

25 June 2019

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 70 million displaced persons in the world today, including 25.9 million refugees who are escaping war and persecution. These numbers come at an unprecedented level and represent the desperation of those who have been forced to flee violence at home. On World Refugee Day, MARUAH would like to express solidarity with all the refugees worldwide who are on their arduous and precarious journeys to safety.

Close to home, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has created more than 700,000 refugees since 2017, leading to a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s lackluster response to the refugee crisis has been met with international criticism, especially after reports of thousands of refugees being stranded at sea. However, since then, a few countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have provided temporary shelter to the refugees. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) has also provided relief materials to displaced persons in the Rakhine State, and is currently preparing to aid in repatriation of the refugees. Currently, only two ASEAN states (Cambodia and the Philippines) are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which recognizes the obligations of States to protect the rights of refugees.

In a world of increasing violence and climate-related disasters, addressing the refugee crisis is a global responsibility and an obligation under international law. Refugees are amongst the most vulnerable groups of people in the world and we ought to protect them, not turn our backs against them. As part of the international community, MARUAH believes that Singapore has a responsibility in responding to this humanitarian crisis. MARUAH would also like to sincerely thank all the countries that have warmly received these refugees and given them an opportunity to a better future.

MARUAH Singapore