2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Laos
|Publisher||United States Department of State|
|Author||Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor|
|Publication Date||8 April 2011|
|Cite as||United States Department of State, 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Laos, 8 April 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4da56db3af.html [accessed 3 August 2015]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
April 8, 2011
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is an authoritarian one-party state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The most recent National Assembly (NA) election was held in 2006. The constitution legitimizes only a single party, the LPRP, and almost all candidates in the 2006 election were LPRP members vetted by the party. Security forces reported to civilian authorities.
The central government continued to deny citizens the right to change their government. Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening. Corruption in the police and judiciary persisted. The government infringed on citizens' right to privacy and did not respect the rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, or association. Local officials at times restricted religious freedom and freedom of movement. Trafficking in persons remained a problem. Workers' rights were restricted.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Unlike past years, there were no credible reports of military action against insurgent groups.
There were no developments in the cases of persons allegedly killed by the military or police in previous years.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits the beating or torture of an arrested person. In practice, members of the police and security forces sometimes abused prisoners.
Detainees occasionally were subjected to beatings and long-term solitary confinement in completely darkened rooms, and in many cases they were detained in leg chains or wooden stocks for long periods. Former inmates reported that degrading treatment, the chaining and manacling of prisoners, and solitary confinement in small unlit rooms were standard punishments in larger prisons, while smaller provincial or district prisons employed manacles and chains to prevent prisoners from escaping.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions varied widely but in general were harsh and occasionally life threatening. Prisons were overcrowded with poor ventilation, minimal sanitation facilities, inadequate food and potable water, and substandard medical care. Prisoners in larger, state-operated facilities in Vientiane generally fared better than those in provincial prisons. Food rations were minimal, and most prisoners relied on their families for subsistence. Most of the larger facilities allowed prisoners to grow supplemental food in small vegetable gardens, although there were periodic reports that prison guards took food from prisoners' gardens. Prison wardens set prison visitation policies. Consequently, in some facilities families could make frequent visits, but in others visits were severely restricted.
There were credible reports from international organizations that authorities treated ethnic minority prisoners particularly harshly. Former prisoners reported that incommunicado detention was used as an interrogation technique and against perceived problem prisoners; however, there were no reports of its use during the year. Although most prisons had some form of clinic, usually with a doctor or nurse on staff, medical facilities were extremely poor and medical treatment for serious ailments was unavailable. In some facilities prisoners could arrange treatment in outside hospitals if they could pay for the treatment and the expense of police escorts.
Male and female prisoners were held in the same prisons but were placed in separate cells. In some prisons juveniles were held with adult prisoners, although there were no official or reliable statistics available. Most juveniles were in detention for narcotics offenses or petty crimes.
Family members generally could access prisoners and detainees, although sometimes the family did not live close to the jail. Prisoners and detainees could follow some religious observances, but no facilities were provided.
Authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of credible allegations of inhumane conditions; however, family members rarely make such requests for fear of exacerbating poor detention conditions. There were no investigations of credible allegations of inhumane conditions. There were no records of government investigation or monitoring of prison and detention center conditions.
The government did not permit regular independent monitoring of prison conditions. The government continued to deny the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to establish an official presence in the country to monitor prison conditions. The government at times provided foreign diplomatic personnel access to some prisons, but such access was strictly limited. There were no ombudsmen to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, in practice, the government did not respect these provisions and arbitrary arrest and detention persisted.
Role of the Police and Security Apparatus
The Ministry of Public Security (MoPS) maintains internal security but shares the function of state control with the Ministry of Defense's security forces and with the LPRP and the LPRP's popular front organizations. The MoPS includes local police, traffic police, immigration police, security police (including border police), and other armed police units. Communication police are responsible for monitoring telephone and electronic communications. The armed forces have domestic security responsibilities that include counterterrorism and counterinsurgency as well as control of an extensive system of village militias.
Impunity remained a problem, as did police corruption. The MoPS Inspection Department maintained complaint boxes throughout most of the country for citizens to deposit written complaints.
The government cooperated with international organizations to implement a national strategy to strengthen law enforcement and deal with increased drug trafficking and abuse as well as related crime and police corruption.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment While in Detention
Police and military forces have powers of arrest, although normally only police carried them out. Police agents exercised wide latitude in making arrests, relying on exceptions to the requirement that warrants are necessary except to apprehend persons in the act of committing crimes or in urgent cases. Police reportedly sometimes used arrest as a means to intimidate persons or extract bribes. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that military forces detained persons suspected of insurgent activities.
There is a one-year statutory limit for detention without trial. The length of detention without a pretrial hearing or formal charges is also limited to one year. The Office of the Prosecutor General (OPG) reportedly made efforts to ensure that all prisoners were brought to trial within the one-year limit, but the limit occasionally was ignored. The OPG must authorize police to hold a suspect pending investigation. Authorization is given in three-month increments, and a suspect must be released after a maximum of one year if police do not have sufficient evidence to bring charges. There is a bail system, but its implementation was arbitrary. Prisoner access to family members and a lawyer was not assured, and incommunicado detention remained a problem.
Authorities at times continued to detain prisoners after they completed their sentences, particularly in cases where prisoners were unable to pay court fines. In other cases prisoners were released contingent upon their agreement to pay fines at a later date.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary was weak, but there were no cases reported during the year of senior government or party officials influencing the courts. Impunity and corruption were problems; reportedly, some judges could be bribed. The NA may remove judges from office for "impropriety," although no judges were removed during the year.
By law, defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence; however, in practice judges usually decided guilt or innocence in advance, basing their decisions on the result of police or prosecutorial investigation reports. Most trials, including criminal trials, were little more than pro forma examinations of the accused and review of the evidence. Juries are not used. Trials that involve certain criminal laws relating to national security, state secrets, children under the age of 16, or certain types of family law are closed. The law provides for open trials in which defendants have the right to defend themselves with the assistance of a lawyer or other persons. Defense attorneys are provided at government expense only in cases involving children, cases with the possibility of life imprisonment or the death penalty, and cases considered particularly complicated, such as those involving foreigners. The law requires that authorities inform persons of their rights and states that defendants may have anyone assist them in preparing written cases and accompany them at trial; however, only the defendant may present oral arguments at a criminal trial. Defendants are permitted to question witnesses and can present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right of appeal.
Court litigants may select members of the Lao Bar Association to represent them at trial. The association is nominally independent but receives some direction from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). For several reasons, including the general perception that attorneys cannot affect court decisions, most defendants did not choose to have attorneys or trained representatives. The association's two satellite offices in the provinces of Champasak and Oudomsay provided legal services to citizens in need.
All of the country's judges were LPRP members. Most had only basic legal training, and some zonal courts had few or no reference materials available for guidance. The NA's Legal Affairs Committee occasionally reviewed the Supreme People's Court (SPC) decisions for "accuracy" and returned cases to it or the OPG for review when the committee believed decisions were reached improperly.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were three well-known political prisoners. Colonel Sing Chanthakoumane, an official of the pre-1975 government, was serving a life sentence after a 1990 trial that was not conducted according to international standards. The government continued to prevent access to him and ignored requests to release him on humanitarian grounds. At least two persons, Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Seng-aloun Phengboun, arrested in 1999 for attempting to organize a prodemocracy demonstration, continued to serve 15-year sentences for antigovernment activities. Authorities allowed families to visit them, but no humanitarian organization had regular access to them. The government declared the prisoners would not be released despite an international call for their release. The government also denied having any information about nine individuals allegedly detained in November 2009 while traveling to the capital for a protest.
According to some Internet reports, authorities continued to detain a small but unknown number of persons, particularly members of the Hmong ethnic group suspected of insurgent activities, for allegedly violating criminal laws concerning national security. There were no credible reports during the year of persons arrested, tried, and convicted under laws relating to national security that prevent public court trials.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The law provides for independence of the judiciary in civil matters; however, enforcement of court orders remained a problem. If civil or political rights are violated, one may seek judicial remedy in a criminal court or pursue an administrative remedy from the NA under the law. In regard to social and cultural rights, one may seek remedy in a civil court.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law generally protects privacy, including that of mail, telephone, and electronic correspondence, but the government reportedly violated these legal protections when there was a perceived security threat.
The law prohibits unlawful searches and seizures. By law police must obtain search authorization from a prosecutor or a panel of judges, but in practice police did not always obtain prior approval, especially in rural areas. Security laws allow the government to monitor individuals' movements and private communications, including via cell phones and e-mail.
The MoPS regularly monitored citizen activities through a surveillance network that included a secret police element. A militia in urban and rural areas, operating under the aegis of the armed forces, shared responsibility for maintaining public order and reported "undesirable elements" to police. Members of the LPRP's front organizations, including the Lao Women's Union (LWU), the Youth Union, and the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), also played a role in monitoring citizens at all societal levels.
The government relocated some villagers for land concessions given to development projects and continued to relocate highland farmers, most of whom belonged to ethnic minority groups, to lowland areas under its plan to end opium production and slash-and-burn agriculture. In some areas, officials persuaded villagers to move; in others, villagers relocated spontaneously to be closer to roads, markets, and government services. While there were no reports of the government forcibly relocating villagers, there were reports of individuals displaced by government projects. Although the resettlement plan called for compensating farmers for lost land and providing resettlement assistance, this assistance was not available in many cases or was insufficient to give relocated farmers the means to adjust. Moreover, in some areas farmland allotted to relocated villagers was poor and unsuited for intensive rice farming, resulting in some relocated villagers experiencing increased poverty, hunger, malnourishment, and disease. The government relied on assistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), bilateral donors, and international organizations to cover the needs of those recently resettled, but such aid was not available in all areas.
The law allows citizens to marry foreigners only with prior government approval; marriages without it may be annulled, with both parties subject to arrest and fines. Premarital cohabitation with foreigners is illegal. The government routinely granted permission to marry, but the process was lengthy and burdensome, offering officials the opportunity to solicit bribes.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, in practice the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism that it deemed harmful to its reputation. The law forbids slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.
Authorities prohibited the dissemination of materials deemed by the Ministry of Information and Culture to be indecent, subversive of "national culture," or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to the national culture faced a fine or imprisonment up to one year.
The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news in all media reflected government policy. Although domestic television and radio broadcasts were closely controlled, the government did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Many citizens routinely watched Thai television or listened to Thai radio, including news broadcasts from international news sources. Citizens had 24-hour access to international stations via satellite and cable television. The government required registration of receiving satellite dishes and payment of a one-time licensing fee, largely as a revenue-generating measure, but otherwise made no effort to restrict use.
The government permitted the publication of several privately owned periodicals of a nonpolitical nature, including those specializing in business, society, and trade. While officials did not review in advance all articles in these periodicals, they reviewed them after publication and could penalize periodicals whose articles did not meet government approval. A few foreign newspapers and magazines were available through private outlets that had government permission to sell them.
The government required foreign journalists to apply for special visas and restricted their activities. Authorities did not allow journalists free access to information sources, but often allowed them to travel without official escorts. When escorts were required, they reportedly were at journalists' expense.
The government controlled all domestic Internet servers and retained the ability to block access to Internet sites it deemed pornographic or critical of government institutions and policies. The Lao National Internet Committee under the Prime Minister's Office administered the Internet system.
The government sporadically monitored Internet usage.
The Prime Minister's Office required all Internet service providers to submit quarterly reports and link their gateways to facilitate monitoring, but the government's enforcement ability appeared limited. The government did not block major foreign news sources, nor did it have the capability to monitor blogging or the establishment of new Web sites. There were no reports of government prosecution of persons for the expression of political, religious, or dissenting views via the Internet. There were no reports of government attempts to collect personally identifiable information of a person in connection with that person's peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or belief.
Many citizens used the services of a growing number of Internet cafes for private correspondence rather than personal computers. Very few homes had Internet access; most non-business users depended on Internet cafes located chiefly in the larger urban areas. The International Telecommunication Union reported that Internet users numbered approximately 5 percent of the country's inhabitants in 2009.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The law provides for academic freedom, but in practice the government imposed restrictions. The Ministry of Education tightly controlled curricula in schools, including private schools and colleges.
Both citizen and noncitizen academic professionals conducting research in the country may be subject to restrictions on travel, access to information, and publication. Although the government exercised control via requirements for exit stamps and other mechanisms over the ability of state-employed academic professionals to travel for research or obtain study grants, the government actively sought such opportunities worldwide and approved virtually all such proposals.
The government required films and music recordings produced in government studios to be submitted for official censorship; however, uncensored foreign films and music were available in video and compact disc formats. The Ministry of Information and Culture attempted to limit the influence of Thai culture in Lao music and entertainment, but these attempts had little effect.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly; however, the government restricted this right in practice. The law prohibits participation in demonstrations, protest marches, or other acts that cause "turmoil or social instability." Participation in such acts is punishable by prison terms of one to five years (see section 1.e.).
Freedom of Association
The law provides citizens the right to organize and join associations, but the government restricted this right in practice. For example, political groups other than popular-front organizations approved by the LPRP are forbidden. A new decree that the government began implementing in 2009 allows the registration of nonprofit civil society organizations – including economic, social-welfare, professional, technical, and creative associations – at the district, provincial, or national level, depending on the scope of work and membership. Only one organization completed the application process by year's end.
c. Freedom of Religion
For a complete description of religious freedom, please see the Department of State's 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in practice the government imposed some restrictions. The government cooperated in some cases with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Citizens who travel across provincial borders are not required to report to authorities; however, in designated security zones, officials occasionally set up roadblocks and checked identity cards. Citizens seeking to travel to contiguous areas of neighboring countries generally obtained permits easily from district offices. Those wishing to travel farther abroad were required to apply for passports.
The government did not use forced exile; however, it denied the right of return to persons who fled the country during the 1975 change in government and were tried in absentia for antigovernment activities. There were no cases during the reporting period of any individuals being denied entry to Laos based on past activities.
Protection of Refugees
The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, but the law provides for asylum and the protection of stateless persons. In practice the government did provide some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The government did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status; however, it showed some flexibility in dealing pragmatically with individual asylum cases.
The government continued to refuse the UNHCR's request to reestablish an in-country presence, which it had in the 1990s, to monitor the reintegration of Hmong returnees from Thailand. The government stated that the UNHCR's mandate expired in 2001 and that all former refugees had successfully reintegrated. During the year foreign diplomats, representatives from international organizations (including the UNHCR), and the press visited Phonekham and Phalak villages, where some of the Lao Hmong returned from Thailand were resettled, including the Lao Hmong involuntarily returned from Thailand in December 2009.
The government's policy both for Hmong surrendering internally and for those returned from Thailand was to return them to communities of origin whenever possible. However, most of the December 2009 returnees resettled in Phonekham village, Borikhamxay Province, where the government provided land, housing, clean water, and electricity plus one year's supply of food. Several hundred persons without strong community links who returned between 2007 and 2009 were relocated in government settlements such as Phalak village, Vientiane Province.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Although the constitution outlines a system composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the LPRP controlled governance and the leadership at all levels through its constitutionally designated "leading role."
Elections and Political Participation
The law provides for a representative national assembly, elected every five years in open, multiple-candidate, fairly tabulated elections, with voting by secret ballot and universal adult suffrage. However, the constitution legitimizes only the LPRP; all other political parties are outlawed. Election committees, appointed by the NA, must approve all candidates for local and national elections. Candidates do not need to be LPRP members, but in practice almost all were. The most recent NA election, held in 2006, was conducted under this system.
The NA chooses members of the Standing Committee, generally based on the previous Standing Committee's recommendations. Upon such recommendations, the NA elects or removes the president and vice president. The Standing Committee has the mandate to supervise all administrative and judicial organizations and the sole power to recommend presidential decrees. It also appoints the National Election Committee, which has powers over elections, including approval of candidates. Activities of the Standing Committee were not fully transparent.
The NA, upon the president's recommendation, formally elects the prime minister and other government ministers.
There were 29 women in the 115-seat NA, including two on the nine-member Standing Committee, and three women were members of the 13-member Supreme Court. The 55-seat LPRP Central Committee included four women, one of whom was also a member of the 11-member Politburo and president of the National Assembly. Of 12 ministers in the Prime Minister's Office, two were women. The minister of labor and social welfare also was a woman.
While 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas and the village chief and village council handled most everyday matters, fewer than 1 percent of the village chiefs were women. The LWU – the LPRP mass organization focused on women's issues with a presence in every village and at every government level – is the only organization that has representation in every village; however, only one member of the LWU represented women in each village council.
There were seven members of ethnic minorities in the LPRP Central Committee, including two in the Politburo. The NA included 23 members of ethnic minorities, while three of the 28 cabinet ministers were members of ethnic minority groups. The new president of the National Assembly was also a member of an ethnic minority. One SPC justice was a member of an ethnic minority.
Section 4 Official Corruption and Government Transparency
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Wages of all government officials were extremely low; and many officials, such as police, had broad powers that they could easily abuse.
Many police officers used their authority to extract bribes from citizens. Corrupt officials reportedly were seldom punished. Police were trained at the National Police Academy, but the extent to which the academy's curriculum covered corruption was unknown.
In theory the government's National Audit Committee has responsibility for uncovering corruption in all government ministries, including the MoPS, but in practice its investigative activities were minimal. Authorities arrested and administratively punished lower-level officials on occasion for corruption. There were no reports of criminal cases being brought to trial. The government-controlled press rarely reported cases of official corruption.
Central and provincial inspection organizations responsible for enforcing laws against corruption lacked defined roles and sufficient powers as well as adequate funding, equipment, and legal support from the government.
Prior to taking their designated positions, senior officials were required by party policy to disclose their personal assets to the LPRP's Party Inspection Committee. The committee inspects the officials' assets before and after the officials have been in their positions. However, the LPRP used its control of government authorities and media to block public censure of corrupt officials who were party members.
There are no laws providing for public access to government information, and in general the government closely guarded the release of any information pertaining to its internal activities, deeming such secrecy necessary for "national security."
Section 5 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
There were no domestic human rights NGOs.
The government only sporadically responded in writing to requests for information on the human rights situation from international human rights organizations. However, the government maintained human rights dialogues with several foreign governments and continued to receive training in UN human rights conventions from several international donors.
The government maintained contacts and cooperated with the ICRC in various activities for the implementation of international humanitarian law.
A human rights division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has responsibility for investigating allegations of human rights violations. However, in practice the division apparently had no authority to perform or order other ministries to undertake investigations. The ministry on occasion responded to inquiries from the UN regarding the human rights situation in the country.
Section 6 Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The constitution provides for equal treatment under the law for all citizens without regard to sex, social status, education, faith, or ethnicity. The government at times took action when well-documented and obvious cases of discrimination came to the attention of high-level officials, although the legal mechanism whereby citizens may bring charges of discrimination against individuals or organizations was neither well developed nor widely understood among the general population.
Rape was reportedly rare, although, like most crime, it was likely underreported. The country does not have a central database of crime, nor does it provide statistics on crime. The law criminalizes rape, with punishment set at three to five years' imprisonment. Sentences are significantly longer and may include capital punishment if the victim is under age 18 or is seriously injured or killed. In rape cases that were tried in court, defendants generally were convicted with sentences ranging from three years' imprisonment to execution.
Domestic violence is illegal; however, there is no law against marital rape, and domestic violence often went unreported due to social stigma. Penalties for domestic violence, including battery, torture, and detaining persons against their will, may include both fines and imprisonment. The criminal law granted exemption from penal liabilities in cases of physical violence without serious injury or physical damage. LWU centers and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW), in cooperation with NGOs, assisted victims of domestic violence. Statistics were unavailable on the number of abusers prosecuted, convicted, or punished.
Sexual harassment was rarely reported and its extent was difficult to assess. Although sexual harassment was not illegal, "indecent sexual behavior" toward another person is illegal and punishable by six months to three years in prison.
Couples and individuals had the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children, and had the information and means to do so free from discrimination. Access to information on contraception was generally available; however, contraception was not widely available in rural areas and was often financially out of reach. The UN Population Fund estimated the maternal mortality ratio to be 660 deaths per 100,000 live births. Deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth were the number one cause of death for women of reproductive age. Very few women had access to skilled birth attendants and very few medical centers were equipped to deal with complicated births, especially in small, nomadic, and ethnic villages. Antenatal care remained low.
Women and men were given equal access to diagnostic services and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Traditional attitudes and gender role stereotyping kept women and girls in a subordinate position, preventing them from equally accessing education and business opportunities, and there was little government effort to redress this. Women continued to be disproportionately affected by poverty, especially in rural and ethnic minority communities. While rural women carried out more than half of total agricultural production in every field, the additional workloads of housework and child rearing also fell primarily on women.
The law provides for equal rights for women, and the LWU operated nationally to promote the position of women in society. The law prohibits legal discrimination in marriage and inheritance; however, varying degrees of culturally based discrimination against women persisted, with greater discrimination practiced by some hill tribes. The LWU conducted several programs to strengthen the role of women. The programs were most effective in the urban areas. Many women occupied decision-making positions in the civil service and private business, and in urban areas their incomes were often higher than those of men.
Regardless of where they are born, children acquire citizenship if both parents are citizens. Children born of one citizen parent acquire citizenship if born in the country or, when born outside the country's territory, if one parent has a permanent in-country address. Not all births were immediately registered.
Education is compulsory, free, and universal through the fifth grade; however, high fees for books and supplies and a general shortage of teachers in rural areas prevented many children from attending school. There were significant differences among the various ethnic groups in the educational opportunities offered to boys and girls. Although the government's policy is to inform ethnic groups on the benefits of education for all children, some ethnic groups did not consider education for girls either necessary or beneficial. While figures were not reliable, reported literacy rates for girls were approximately 10 percent lower than for boys in general. Although school enrollment rates for girls remained lower than for boys, gender parity has been increasing.
The law prohibits violence against children, and violators were subject to stiff punishments. Reports of the physical abuse of children were rare.
The law allowed marriage under the age of 18 in "special and necessary cases," often cases of underage pregnancy, and a considerable percentage of women married before reaching the age of 18.
The law does not contain penalties specifically for child prostitution, but the penalty for sex with a child (defined as under 15 years of age, the age of consent) is one to five years' imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 to three million kip (approximately $60 to $360). The law does not include statutory rape as a crime distinct from sex with a child or rape of any person. Child pornography is not treated differently from pornography in general, for which the penalty is three months' to one year's imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 kip ($6 to $24).
A general increase in tourism in the country and a concomitant rise in child sex tourism in Southeast Asia in recent years attracted the attention of authorities, who sought to prevent child sex tourism from taking root. The government continued efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex through periodic raids and training workshops. The government and NGOs hosted seminars to train tourism-sector employees, including taxi drivers and tourism police. Many major international hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang displayed posters created by international NGOs warning against child sex tourism. In 2009 the government introduced a hotline for reporting child sex tourism and placed ads in many tourist locations throughout the country to encourage people to report suspected cases of child sex tourism.
The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. For information on international parental child abduction, please see the Department of State's annual report on compliance at http://travel.state.gov/abduction/resources/congressreport/congressreport_4308.html.
There was no known Jewish community in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
For information on trafficking in persons, please see the Department of State's annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution provides citizens protection against discrimination but does not specify that these protections apply to persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Health has primary responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Because of the large number of disabilities resulting from unexploded ordnance accidents, the ministry works extensively on this issue, especially in coordination with the international NGO COPE. Regulations promulgated by the MLSW and the Lao National Commission for the Disabled protect such persons against discrimination; however, the regulations lack the force of law. The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for persons with disabilities, but the MLSW has established regulations regarding building access and built some sidewalk ramps in Vientiane. While there was some progress on accessibility, lack of resources for infrastructure slowed the retrofitting of most buildings. There were no reports of discrimination in the workplace.
The Lao Disabled People's Association operated a care center for children with cerebral palsy; the cost was covered by foreign assistance. The Ministry of Health in conjunction with international NGOs operated the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise to supply prosthetic limbs, correct club feet, and provide education to deaf and blind persons.
The law provides for equal rights for all minority citizens, and there is no legal discrimination against them; however, some societal discrimination persisted. Moreover, some critics charged that the government's resettlement program for ending slash-and-burn agriculture and opium production adversely affected many ethnic minority groups, particularly in the North. The program requires that resettled persons adopt paddy rice farming and live in large communities, ignoring the traditional livelihoods and community structures of these minority groups. International observers questioned whether the benefits promoted by the government – access to markets, schools, and medical care for resettled persons – outweighed the negative impact on traditional cultural practices. Some minority groups not involved in resettlement, especially those in remote locations, faced difficulties, believing they had little voice in government decisions affecting their lands and the allocation of natural resources from their areas.
Of the 49 official ethnic groups in the country, the Hmong are one of the largest and most prominent. There were a number of Hmong officials in the senior ranks of the government and the LPRP, including one Politburo member and five members of the LPRP Central Committee. However, some Hmong believed their ethnic group could not coexist with ethnic Lao. This belief fanned separatist or irredentist beliefs among some Hmong. The government focused limited assistance projects in Hmong areas to address regional and ethnic disparities in income, which helped ameliorate conditions in the poorest districts.
Although there were no reports of attacks by the few remaining Hmong insurgent groups during the year, the government leadership maintained its suspicion of Hmong political objectives. Although residual, small, scattered pockets of insurgents and their families remained in remote jungle areas, the government reduced efforts from previous years to actively combat the insurgents.
The government continued to offer "amnesty" to insurgents who surrender, but it continued to deny international observers permission to visit the estimated more than 2,000 insurgents who have surrendered since 2005 – other than a few families in Phalak village. Because of their past activities, amnestied insurgents continued to be the focus of official suspicion and scrutiny.
The government generally refused international community offers to assist surrendered insurgents directly but allowed some aid from the UN and international agencies as part of larger assistance programs.
Societal Abuses, Discrimination, and Acts of Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
There was no law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Within lowland Lao society, despite wide and growing tolerance of homosexual practices, societal discrimination in employment and housing persisted, and there were no governmental efforts to address it. Reports indicated that lesbians faced greater stigma and discrimination than gay men.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
There was no societal violence and no official discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, but societal discrimination existed. The government actively promoted tolerance of those with HIV/AIDS, and it conducted public-awareness campaigns to promote understanding toward such persons.
Section 7 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The law does not allow workers to form and join independent unions of their choice; they may form unions without previous authorization only if they operate within the framework of the officially sanctioned Federation of Lao Trade Unions (FLTU), which in turn is controlled by the LPRP. In addition the law does not permit unions to conduct their activities without government interference and prohibits union membership for foreign workers. Strikes are not prohibited by law, but the government's ban on subversive activities or destabilizing demonstrations and its failure to provide means to call a strike made strikes extremely unlikely, and none were reported during the year.
According to the FLTU, there were 3,910 trade unions nationwide, including in most government offices. These included 16 provincial trade unions, one municipal trade union, 36 ministerial trade unions, and 2,772 permanent trade unions. Total FLTU membership was 155,000, approximately 5 percent of the total workforce. Most FLTU members worked in the public sector.
The government employed the majority of salaried workers. Subsistence farmers made up an estimated 80 percent of the work force.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
There is no right to organize and bargain collectively. The law stipulates that disputes be resolved through workplace committees composed of employers, representatives of the local labor union, and representatives of the FLTU, with final authority residing in the MLSW. The ministry generally did not enforce the law, especially in dealings with joint ventures in the private sector. Labor disputes reportedly were infrequent. According to labor activists, the FLTU needed government permission to enter factories and had to provide advance notice of such visits, rendering it powerless to protect workers who filed complaints.
The government set wages and salaries for government employees; management set wages and salaries for private business employees.
The law stipulates that employers may not fire employees for conducting trade union activities, lodging complaints against employers about law implementation, or cooperating with officials on law implementation and labor disputes, and there were no reports of such cases. Workplace committees were used for resolving complaints, but there was no information on how effective these committees were in practice.
There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws in the country's export processing zone.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor except in time of war or national disaster. However, some NGOs reported that Lao girls were subjected to conditions of forced labor within the country.
Also see the Department of State's annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
By law children under age 15 may not be recruited for employment except to work for their families, provided such work is not dangerous or difficult. The MoPS and the MoJ are responsible for enforcing these provisions, but enforcement was ineffective due to a lack of inspectors and other resources. Many children helped on family farms or in shops and other family businesses, but child labor was rare in industrial enterprises. Some garment factories reportedly employed a very small number of underage girls.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The MLSW sets the minimum wage but has no regular schedule or transparent process for doing so. In 2009 the MLSW, in consultation with the FLTU and Lao Chamber of Commerce and Industry, set the daily minimum wage for the more than 120,000 private-sector workers at 13,385 kip (approximately $1.60); the monthly minimum wage was 348,000 kip ($41). Additionally, employers were required to pay a 8,500 kip ($1) meal allowance per day. These wages were insufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. The NA, in consultation with the Ministry of Finance, increased the minimum wage for civil servants and state enterprise employees to 405,000 kip ($47.80) per month in 2008. In addition to their minimum wage, civil servants often received housing subsidies and other government benefits. Some piecework employees, especially on construction sites, earned less than the minimum wage.
The law provides for a workweek limited to 48 hours (36 hours for employment in dangerous activities) and at least one day of rest per week. Overtime may not exceed 30 hours per month, and each period of overtime may not exceed three hours. The overtime pay rate varies from 150 to 300 percent of normal pay. The overtime law was not effectively enforced.
The law provides for safe working conditions and higher compensation for dangerous work. In case of death or injury on the job, employers are responsible for compensating a worker or the worker's family. Employers generally fulfilled this requirement in the formal economic sector. The law also mandates extensive employer responsibility for those disabled at work, and this provision appeared effectively enforced. The MLSW is responsible for workplace inspections. Officials undertake unannounced inspections when notified of a violation of safe working standards. However, the MLSW lacked the personnel and budgetary resources to enforce the law effectively. The law has no specific provision allowing workers to remove themselves from a dangerous situation without jeopardizing their employment.
There were a number of illegal immigrants in the country, particularly from Vietnam, China, and Burma, and they were vulnerable to exploitation by employers. These immigrants primarily worked in construction, plantations, casinos, and service industries.