Laos: Jumping On The UN-Human Rights Treaties Bandwagon

2003

Christina Warning

Triggered by reports of the arrest in June of two western ‘investigative journalists’ and their American translator, Laos’ allegedly poor human rights record once again came into the spotlight of international scrutiny. However, little attention has been paid to the constraints and difficulties this ‘nation in transition’ faces in order to abide by and implement human rights obligations formulated at international fora.

On 7 December 2000, the government of the Lao PDR signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Since both are subject to ratification by the National Assembly – a process which is still pending – the Lao PDR is not yet fully bound by the provisions of the ICESCR and ICCPR. However by signing these covenants, Laos has expressed its willingness to continue the treaty-making process and has accepted an obligation to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the two covenants.

The ICESCR and ICCPR are part of the so-called ‘six core United Nations human rights treaties’, which form the backbone of the United Nations human rights activities as a whole. Out of the remaining four treaties, Laos has already ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1974, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1981 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991. The only core instrument Laos did not become engaged with so far is the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

The signing of the ICESCR and ICCPR by the Lao government in the year 2000 reflected a general trend after the end of the Cold War towards universal ratification of the six principal UN human rights treaties. The ‘universality goal’, which had been laid out in the Programme of Action of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, was endorsed by the General Assembly of the UN in its resolution 48/121 in December 1993. As a consequence of this development, the various UN agencies began to promote the idea of universal ratification on a global scale.

By adhering to the ICERD, CEDAW and CRC, Laos has already assumed an obligation to implement the provisions laid out in the respective international instruments into its domestic legal framework. Furthermore, the Lao PDR is held to submitting state reports on a regular basis to the specific treaty bodies consisting of international experts, which monitor the proper implementation of the treaty obligations. Due to the relative novelty of the current legal system of the Lao PDR (the Constitution was promulgated in 1991 and the main body of approximately 50 laws enacted by the National Assembly stem from the 1990s), the implementation of the international treaties on the domestic plane has created a major challenge for the country.

The Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs at the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which oversees the relationship between domestic and international law has noted that ‘the understanding of international treaties and conventions that Laos has signed or ratified is very limited, not only within the government but also within the judiciary and the legislature’.

This lack of legal infrastructure and general understanding has led to a huge backlog of overdue state reports on compliance to the treaty bodies, which monitor Laos’ performance under the ICERD, CEDAW and CRC. Moreover, the few reports which have been produced so far, such as the initial report on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (due 07.06.93, submitted 18.01.96), relied predominantly on the input and expertise of foreign consultants.

WATCHPOINT: While adhering to an increasing number of international treaties, Laos is facing a worsening ‘implementation crisis’. The strong emphasis on universal ratification of the core human rights treaties might not be in the best interest of a country in transition with a limited capacity to fulfill its obligations.

 

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