Sabaidee, good afternoon.

This was a very short visit to Vientiane, but I am grateful for the increasing engagement my Regional Office for Southeast Asia has had in recent years with the Lao Government and civil society, on a range of ongoing and emerging human rights issues and in facilitating interactions with UN human rights mechanisms. This is also the year when Lao PDR is chairing ASEAN.

In my meetings with the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Vice-President of the National Assembly, the Director-General of the Department of Treaty and Law and other senior officials, we discussed the advances Lao PDR has made and the challenges that remain. We discussed the issues constructively and agreed to step up our work together in a number of areas.

Lao PDR has ratified seven out of nine core international human rights treaties – on civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; racial discrimination; discrimination against women; torture; the rights of the child; and the rights of people with disabilities. By ratifying these treaties, the country has signalled its commitment to accede to a roadmap for human rights.

There have been some welcome legislative reforms, including the 2023 amendments to the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Children – which led to a ban on corporal punishment of children. Lao PDR is the first State in the ASEAN region to achieve this fundamental reform, putting into law children’s right to protection from violent punishment.

As Lao PDR charts its path forward, it is confronted with many global, regional and domestic challenges. The impact of climate change, depleting ecosystems and environmental degradation; the large amounts of unexploded ordnance continuing to threaten lives and livelihoods; a global landscape in which poverty levels and income inequalities are increasing; as well as the rippling effects of conflicts and other crises, organized crime and trafficking in persons, in the region and beyond.

In spite of these stresses to the system, the country has made progress in addressing poverty over the last decade, leading to improvements in the living conditions of some segments of the population.

An emphasis on development is of course crucial, but equally important is the integration of human rights in the process of sustainable development. When we speak about the Sustainable Development Goals, let us remember that 95 per cent of the SDGs are in fact human rights obligations. Human rights are not an à la carte menu to select from. Sustainable development is intertwined with economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, as well as the right to a healthy environment.

One key challenge for Lao PDR is public debt. Let me be clear: debt is a human rights issue.

Over half of the world’s poorest countries are in or near full-blown debt distress – contributing to a reduction in overall fiscal space. We have been pushing hard for the human rights lens to be used in the work of international financial institutions and in the debt architecture – and this should be an urgent priority. Debt repayments should not interfere with States’ human rights obligations to allocate the maximum available resources to the realisation of economic and social rights.

It is against this background that I regret the declining public spending on social services, including social protection, health and education. Human rights need to be reflected in budget allocations. If a country does not invest sufficiently in education, health, equality and other essentials, this will result in a cascade of problems in society – scuppering development and increasing inequalities.

The problem of child marriage is of course both a human rights issue and a development issue. Lao PDR has a very high rate of child marriage – with available data indicating that 30 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18, and 17 per cent of women aged 20-24 had their first child while they were still children themselves.

The Government’s ability to tackle such issues depends profoundly on the meaningful participation of those most affected, and of civil society in all its diversity, including women, minorities, and people from all sectors of society, including young people – more than half of the population of Lao PDR is under the age of 25.

In the absence of a vibrant civic space, stagnation sets in, and corruption remains hidden. Policies to address environmental concerns, development goals, human rights violations resulting from business and land projects – indeed, any issue – are intrinsically weakened. They are incapable of reflecting the true complexity of what needs to be addressed. And they are equally incapable of taking into account the impact on people most affected.

While there are various Government policies to promote gender equality, the participation of women in decision-making positions is regrettably low. I was, however, heartened to see that more than 50 per cent of the student body at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the National University was female. I encourage further steps to ensure that women and girls are at every table.

Lao PDR’s national legislation also recognises the right for communities affected by infrastructure projects to be consulted in all phases of the projects. It is crucial for the Government to ensure adequate and meaningful consultation with ethnic minorities, with respect for their right to free, prior, and informed consent.

Across society, those who express their views on issues of public interest need to be able to do so without fear. They should be protected against intimidation, violence or judicial harassment for exercising their freedom of expression. Where they have been subjected to serious human rights violations, these cases need to be effectively and transparently investigated and resolved. Checks and balances are needed, to strengthen oversight of security forces, and to ensure those who overstep their powers are held to account.

In this regard, I called on the Government to continue investigations into cases of enforced disappearance, such as that of Sombath Somphone whose family has been seeking truth and justice for more than 11 years, and to ensure families are kept regularly informed. I also called on Lao PDR to ratify the UN Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced Disappearances.

Throughout my visit to this region, I have also seen cases of transnational repression of human rights defenders. When rights defenders end up in countries other than their own, they need to be protected, with full respect for the core obligation of non-refoulement.

As ASEAN Chair this year, Lao PDR plays a key role in the region, and I was able to discuss this with the ASEAN Special Envoy for Myanmar, as well as the Lao PDR representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission.

This is the first visit by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Lao PDR – and I hope it heralds the deepening of our collaboration on the promotion and protection of human rights for all the people in the country, as well as in the region.

Khop Chai, thank you.



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