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European Parliament : Public hearing on human rights in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

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Members of the main political opposition groups in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam voiced criticism at the absence of EU sanctions, in response to the many failures to respect human rights in those countries, at a public hearing held by the European Parliament on 12 September in Brussels.

The hearing on the human rights situation in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam was organised on the initiative of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights. Speakers pointed out that the bilateral association agreements signed with Laos and Cambodia in 1997 and with Vietnam in 1996 stipulate that respect for human rights is a condition for the maintenance of EU aid to those countries. Though it was questioned repeatedly on this point the European Commission was unable to reply to these criticisms for lack of time.

Speaking “on behalf of my compatriots without votes or rights”, Mrs Thephsouvanh, President of the Lao Movement for Human Rights, painted an appalling picture of the situation in Laos. The Lao single-party regime set up in 1975 and established by the 1991 constitution permitted only the “right to silent thought”, she pointed out. The legal system was “in the party’s hands”, freedom of expression was shackled by a criminal code that “outlaws criticism of the government” ; “ethnic minorities are pursued and harassed”, as in the case of the Hmong people “who are in a desperate situation”. She explained that the repression was obstructing freedom of religion, and that all sectors of public life had been closed down, as exemplified by use of the Internet, which was “under surveillance and subject to restrictions” following a law of 11 October 2000. Mrs Thephsouvanh drew attention to some of the perverse effects of European aid : “Brussels has chosen to pursue cooperation with Laos without first checking that the conditions on democracy are being met”. She concluded that it would be “necessary to require further specific progress before opening the till”.

These charges were backed up by the testimony of Rhi Hamid, a journalist at the BBC and author of a documentary on the “humanitarian disaster” facing the Hmong people. Entering the country as a tourist she had met up with the makeshift camps of these totally isolated people, forced to survive “by eating roots and leaves”, with the permanent threat of attack by the government army. These people, who were only asking for the right to “rejoin Laos society in peace” were being stigmatised as “rebels seeking to overthrow the government”.

The third speaker, Cambodian opposition MP Sam Rainsy, presented his country – with intended irony – as “the most fortunate of the three, as it is the only one where there is a parliamentary opposition”. The opposition was in fact “in a pitiful state” as it was subject to attacks by a regime hijacked by the former Communists. Some opposition MPs, including Mr Rainsy, who criticised a legal system “empowered to eliminate opposition” had by so doing forfeited all parliamentary immunity. “I have been charged with creating an illegal army. I have avoided imprisonment by taking the first plane out. I am appreciating my last moments of freedom here, at the European Parliament”, he added, having decided in spite of everything to return to his country. While he did not deny the generosity of international aid, he highlighted the fact that poverty had got worse in Cambodia because of corruption, which was deflecting aid to feed a “sham democracy”.

In Cambodia, said Mrs Khek Galabru, President of the Cambodian League for the Protection and Defence of Human Rights, the list of human rights violations was a long one. Women’s and children’s rights were being ignored, as was freedom of assembly and freedom to demonstrate, she said.

On Vietnam, Vo Van Ai, President of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, FIDH Vice-President, and President of Forum Democracy Asia, said the European Parliament’s active role and its1985 fact-finding mission had not brought about significant progress in a country that was still “a prison for its people”. Political power was monopolised by the Communist party, a “red mafia financed by the European tax-payer, whose funds are ensuring that the impossibility of establishing a democratic opposition is being set in stone”. He ended his speech by calling on the European Parliament to adopt an urgent resolution calling for Vietnam to improve the human rights situation.

In Vietnam the main opposition force comes from the religious communities. The testimony by a former Buddhist monk, Thich Tri Luc, illustrated the repression they are suffering. Despite obtaining refugee status in Cambodia he was abducted, deported to Vietnam and imprisoned there for a year. Now a refugee in Sweden, he had “become aware of the importance of involving the European Parliament”.

MEP Marco Pannella (ALDE, IT) drew attention to the “complicity of the European Parliament, session after session” and its indulgent attitude towards these authoritarian regimes. Over the past three years the European Parliament had in fact adopted ten resolutions under its urgent procedure but they had not brought about any improvement in the situation on the ground. The Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, Hélène Flautre (Greens/EFA, FR) accordingly proposed that rather than recording further comments the issue should be debated by Parliament in plenary.

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