Laos: Situation of minorities remains dire as Laos goes before the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Geneva-Paris-Bangkok, 27 February 2012 - Although Laos has become a State party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) since 1974, ethnic minority groups in the country continue to face discrimination and their basic rights and freedoms are subject to a range of limitations that are incompatible with Laos’ obligations under international law, said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member league the Lao Movement for Human Rights (MLDH).

Laos will go before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) this week in Geneva to report on its compliance with the ICERD. In an alternative report submitted to the Committee, MLDH points to the discrepancy between State rhetoric of ethnic equality and the reality on the ground, which is characterized by a range of discriminatory practices that seriously undermine the rights of ethnic minorities to equality and to freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion. The report reveals that discrimination is directed not only against the Hmong but also against other minorities such as the Mien, the Khmu and the Oïe. Individuals belonging to an ethnic and religious minority group suffer double discrimination.

The situation of the Hmong in Laos is of particular concern. The government is “maintaining its exactions against the Hmongs because of the military alliance of their parents or their grand-parents had with the United States during the Vietnam War,” said the report. While exact numbers are difficult to obtain, it is estimated that 2000-3000 Hmongs are still hiding in the jungle in the Saysomboun region in northern Laos.  The detention and disappearance of several Hmong men who left the jungle and surrendered themselves to the authorities since 2005 have created a climate of mistrust among those still holding out in the jungle, for fear that they would be persecuted by the government if they deliver themselves to the authorities. Most of the estimated 2000 Hmongs who surrendered to the authorities are placed in camps rather than allowed to return to their villages. Access to these surrendered Hmongs by independent humanitarian and human rights monitors are routinely denied.

Approximately 4700 Lao-Hmongs were forcibly repatriated by the Thai authorities to Laos at the end of 2009, including 158 Lao-Hmongs who had obtained refugee status. These repatriated Lao-Hmongs are placed in the camps of Phonekham, Bolikhamsay province and in the camps of Phalak and Nongsan, Vientiane province.  The Laotian government has consistently denied access to these camps by independent international monitors. The only visit by foreign journalists and diplomats in March 2010 was orchestrated by the authorities and did not allow for free and unsupervised conversations to ascertain their treatment at the hands of the authorities.

“As the host to the 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) this year in Vientiane in November, the government of Laos has an unprecedented opportunity to embark on a new course and demonstrate its commitment to the international community that it is ready to take actions to improve its human rights records, especially regarding the situation of the Hmongs,” said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President.

“Laos should take all necessary steps to ensure existing laws are in compliance with ICERD and other international treaties it has ratified and that government at all levels cease discrimination against ethnic minorities in law and in practice,” stressed Vanida S. Thephsouvah, President of MLDH. “The government should enact bold political reforms to strengthen the rule of law so as to lay down the institutional building blocks for the emergence of democratic culture and institutions, which in turn serve as the best check against state-sanctioned discrimination against minorities.”