With the consent and at the invitation of the Government of Lao PDR (GoL), the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Mr. Philip Alston, visited Lao PDR on 18-28 March 2019. The objective of this visit was to assess and identify the poverty level that remains in the country, its causes and the way forward that can be recommended to the GoL, as well as the success and challenges of the promotion and protection of human rights of the people who still live in poverty.
During the 10 day-visit, the Special Rapporteur made a courtesy call on the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and met with senior officers and representatives of all relevant sectors, such as the National Assembly, People’s Supreme Court, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry including the Department of Rural Development and Cooperatives and the Poverty Reduction Fund, Ministry of Planning and Investment, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and Sports, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ministry of Energy and Mining, Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, Ministry of Home Affairs, Lao Women’s Union, and the Lao National Statistics Bureau. The Special Rapporteur also met with members of the diplomatic community and other stakeholders. The Special Rapporteur made field visits to Attapeu and Huaphan provinces, particularly Sanamxay District in Attapeu province which was hit by the unprecedented natural disaster caused by the dam collapse. During the meetings and field visits, the Special Rapporteur received much useful information such as on the implementation of the periodic National Socio-Economic Development Plans and National Strategies on Poverty Reduction. The Special Rapporteur also was informed of the many challenges that Lao PDR has been facing, especially UXOs and natural disasters, among others.
At the end of his short mission in the Lao PDR, the Special Rapporteur has produced an End of Mission Statement and held a press conference at the UN House in Vientiane on 28 March 2019. It was deeply disappointing, however, that the Special Rapporteur has seemingly acted beyond his mandate as conferred to him by the UN Human Rights Council and behaved inconsistently with the Code of Conduct and the Standard Terms of Reference of the Special Procedures by making baseless allegations, inter alia, that the Government’s investment promotion policies are not in line with its poverty reduction efforts, producing negative impacts on the people. These and other baseless allegations were denounced by the representatives of the Lao Government during the Special Rapporteur’s presentation of the End of Mission Statement to the Government’s Responsible Committee and the Special Rapporteur’s live press conference.
On 20 May 2019, the Government has provided further comments and more correct information in writing to the Special Rapporteur’s Initial Findings (End of Mission Statement) and to his Final Report which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in late June 2019. These comments and information by the Lao Government are to further explain and stamp out the misleading and inaccurate information, to reject the Special Rapporteur’s groundless allegations and accusations, so as to provide a clearer and more correct picture of the realities of poverty reduction and human rights promotion and protection in the Lao PDR.
It is regrettable that most of the information received by the Special Rapporteur from his meetings with the Lao authorities at the central and local levels and from the field visits and the comments subsequently submitted by the Government have been ignored by the Special Rapporteur.
Over the past 43 years, the Lao PDR has made significant progress and strides in the national socio-economic development and poverty reduction. Despite the fact that the country had started at a very low base-line, it has strived forward and now is progressing ever closer to graduation from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status with two out of three LDC indexes achieved (i.e. per capita gross national income (GNI); the human assets index (HAI); and the economic vulnerability index (EVI)). According to the UNCTAD’s estimate, there is a high possibility that the Lao PDR could be graduating by 2024 with all three criteria accomplished (currently, only slightly behind the target on EVI). Over the recent years, the poverty rates across the country have reduced substantially such as to 62,384 households or 5.13%, to 1,433 villages or 16.97%, and to 23 districts or 15.54%.
The Lao Government has pursued a consistent policy to cooperate with the international community to promote and protect human rights. The Lao PDR is now State Party to 7 UN core Human Rights Treaties and 2 Optional Protocols. As part of the Government’s commitment to implement international human rights obligations, the Constitution amended in 2015 explicitly included the term “human rights”. Furthermore, there have been numerous laws and decrees adopted or amended, in the effort to better implement Lao PDR’s international obligations and commitments. The Lao PDR has endeavored to fulfill its reporting obligations under the Human Rights Treaties and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). In 2018 alone, the Government has presented three National Reports under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and Convention on the Rights of the Child before the relevant UN Treaty Bodies in Geneva. The Government is presently working on the finalization of an Initial Report under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a National Report for the UPR Third Cycle.
The Lao Government has pursued affirmative policy and practices for the advancement of women and gender equality, while at the same time attaching great importance on unity, solidarity and equality among all the ethnic groups and their protection with a legislation (the Decree on Ethnic Affairs) in its formulation process to serve as a detailed legal basis.This is part of many other ongoing consistent policy and efforts for the protection and promotion of human rights, especially for the vulnerable groups including those below the poverty line. The Lao Government also recognizes the contribution and potential of the Lao Non-Profit Associations (NPAs), hence the issuance of the new and improved legislation in the form of Decree and its respective guidelines and manuals, in order to ensure the smoother registration process and legitimate functioning of the NPAs. Up to present, more than 140 NPAs have been registered and legally recognized. Likewise, the Lao Government attaches importance to creating a favourable environment for the lawful functioning of INGOs in the Lao PDR with a view to further encouraging their contribution to the development in the country. Currently, there are 166 INGOs working in the Lao PDR.
There are existing rules and regulations and monitoring mechanisms the Lao PDR has put in place for investment and development purposes. The need for basic infrastructure, including access to roads and electricity is essential to any development in any context. In this connection, some concessions had to be made in order to attract foreign investments. All of which, have undergone reviews and monitoring phases by the executive and legislature organizations, as well as ad-hoc specific inspecting organizations and committees, including those on land, compensation and environmental issues.
In criticizing the development policy of the Lao Government, the Special Rapporteur has undermined the importance and value of the right to development which is being pursued by the Lao Government, inter alia, through mobilizing Official Development Assistance from Development Partners and FDI from foreign countries and private sectors.
In recognizing the limited resources at hand, the Lao PDR has to prioritize its efforts in all areas, including a comprehensive social security system that prioritizes formal economy sectors first, and according to its capacity shall consider covering the informal sectors in the future. Like any government, the Lao Government attaches importance on the education and health sectors, setting ambitious targets with the purpose of providing sufficient and quality services to the public. Due to circumstances such as that of unprecedented natural disasters and dam collapse in 2018, the goals could not always be met as sacrifices had to be made for more urgent matters.
The nationwide floods and dam collapse in 2018 is the most unfortunate and tragic events that affected a wide range of the population, most of all, those directly hit by the dam collapse. The Lao PDR has recruited independent international experts from the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) to work along with the Government-established National Committee to investigate the root causes of and reassess the said incident. On 28 May 2019, the Lao Government announced the findings of the International Experts Panel (IEP) to the public and all stakeholders in a way that ensures transparency and accountability. At the same time, relief efforts and ongoing projects for the complete restoration of the livelihoods of the survivors have progressed according to the plan.
One of the major obstacles to the development in the Lao PDR is UXO as the country is the most heavily bombed in the world. The UXO and other remnants of the devastative wars still continue to hamper the efforts to relieve the people from poverty. After years and massive investments into the removal of UXOs, which has been also largely assisted by Development Partners, it is still the fact today that the impact felt as a result of the lingering danger of UXO is multi-dimensional. Most tragic is the continuing number of accidents occurring and the number of lives lost or badly hurt. The continued presence of UXO impedes socio-economic development in Laos; local development, agriculture productivity, infrastructure building, and economic investment are all negatively affected. Ultimately, it is the people of Laos who suffer, for UXO contributes to a cycle of poverty experienced in so many local areas.
The invitation of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights is part of the good-will and sincere cooperation that Lao PDR has been maintaining with the international human rights mechanisms, particularly the UN Special Procedures under the Human Rights Council. Over the past ten years, including this Special Rapporteur, there have been 3 Special Rapporteurs that have been invited to visit the country. However, it is deeply disappointing that the Special Rapporteur has hugely ignored the information and detail response provided by the Lao Government, intentionally avoided reporting on the successful development areas and produced unconstructive, and in most cases biased, comments based on unfounded accusations which are reflected in his Final Report submitted to UN Human Rights Council.
While the Lao Government recognizes the importance of cooperation with the UN HRC Special Thematic Procedures, the Government calls for ethical, responsible and accountable behaviours of this UN Special Rapporteur towards the Lao PDR, a sovereign and independent member of the United Nations.