Jun 04, 2024

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Conducting Official Visit to Lao PDR

This week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, will be visiting the Lao People's Democratic of Republic. The UNPO have long been campaigning for the rights of the indigenous Hmong people living in Laos, who have over the past decade in particular experienced a serious escalation of discrimination and violence. The official visit taking place is significant, as the government of Laos has routinely demonstrated a strong reluctance to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms when it comes to issues related to the Hmong, and have consistently failed to respond to requests for further information by UN Special Rapporteurs and the UN Secretary General.

The Hmong are an indigenous group originally from the mountainous regions of southern China, Viet Nam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.  In Laos, the Hmong constitute about 10 percent of the population, which makes them the third largest minority group. Despite this, the government refuses to acknowledge the Hmong as an indigenous group. The Hmong population primarily resides in remote areas of Laos, particularly the Xaisomboun region, at the north of the capital Vientiane, which has borders with Thailand at the east, Vietnam on the West, China on the North and Myanmar on the northeast. Xaisomboun is a mountainous, isolated and strategically-important region, rich with natural resources. 

The Hmong in Laos face pervasive discrimination and human rights abuses. This is particularly the case for the ChaoFa Hmong group, who reside deep within the forests surrounding Phou Bia, Laos' highest mountain and the traditional land of the Hmong. 

As a result of economic development projects and increased foreign investment pouring into Laos, particularly in the Xaisomboun region which is deemed a ‘Special Economic Zone’, human rights abuses affecting the Hmong region-wide have accelerated. Some of the economic development projects include: dam buildings, tourist resort on top of Phou Bia Mountain, mining exploitation by Chinese and other foreign companies among different activities.

In order to clear the region traditionally inhabited by the ChaoFa Hmong for development, there has been a significant increase in military attacks in the Phou Bia area. There are multiple and credible reports of disappearances, physical abuse, and large number of extrajudicial killings by the military including of women and children. 

In view of the extreme situation, many Hmong have tried to flee or have been forced to resettle in government-controlled camps and villages. In the resettlement process, families are often separated, and many face slavery-like treatment, torture, and even rape by law enforcement officers. Extra-judicial killings have also been reported. 

Hmong who remain in the jungle and refuse resettlement, are forced into a relentless cycle of relocation to evade military attacks. This makes it difficult for them to grow crops and access safe drinking water, sanitation and healthcare. The military are intentionally obstructing their access to wild food sources, resulting in severe starvation. The use of heavy artillery, including tanks and long-range artillery strikes, has caused physical injuries and killings, including among women and children. 

Ongoing discrimination and violence have pushed the ChaoFa Hmong to the brink of extinction in the Phou Bia region. Estimates suggest a population decline from approximately 30,000 in 1975 to just 2,000-4,000 in 2016. Due to severe restrictions on communication, current numbers are uncertain, but estimates suggest there may be fewer than 100 individuals, scattered in small groups of 4-5 throughout the jungle.

Furthermore, for decades, the area has been closed to all visitors and international observers, with the government denying any official requests to visit the area, or any humanitarian or medical assistance. On 14 March 2021 authorities in Xaisomboun issued an official decree restricting access to the Phou Bia jungle to all civilians. Nonetheless, a few journalists have managed to unofficially visit the area and reported on the disproportionate use of force and human rights abuses against the people in the region. 

Several Human Rights mechanisms have raised concerns about the situation. For example, after the UNPO submitted information, in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively, the UN Special Rapporteurs raised concerns about the specific situation faced by the Hmong in the Xaysomboun region. Cases of intimidation and reprisals have also been included in the UN Secretary General in 2021 and 2022. However the Lao government has consistently failed to respond to requests for further information. Despite requests, the government has so far denied access to the UN and other humanitarian organizations, making it hard to assess the situation and provide much-needed help.

Given the severity of the situation, it is absolutely crucial that independent observers and humanitarian aid be allowed into the region.

In light of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' visit to Laos, UNPO urgently calls for attention to the critical situation facing the Hmong. In particular, we request the following actions:

  1. Request the Government to allow Independent experts to visit the Phou Bia area:

We urge the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to request access to the area for independent experts to visit the Hmong areas. Their presence will help to document and verify the human rights abuses reported by the community and provide an impartial assessment of the situation.

  1. Request the Government to allow Humanitarian Aid particularly to Hmong women and children

We call for immediate humanitarian aid to be provided to the affected Hmong communities, particularly in the Phou Bia. They need urgent help with food, water, healthcare, and other basic necessities.

  1. Request the Government to engage in discussions with the Hmong community leaders

We call for the initiation of a mediation process between the Lao government and the Hmong community. This process should aim to address the grievances of the Hmong people, protect their rights, and foster a dialogue that can lead to a peaceful resolution. Such a process must be inclusive and ensure that the voices of the Hmong community are heard and respected.