Caught on camera, hidden from view: the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone

By Katharine Derderian, EU Foreign Policy Officer at Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office
Imagine a man thinking and discussing about development in his country — many people know him, a regular person like you and me. 

Imagine he organises civil society meetings which are transparent and non-controversial, open to everyone – including his own government.
Imagine that he is stopped one night ten months ago at a police post and never reappears.
Imagine that the last images of him getting out of his car are caught on closed circuit TV and shown to his family – but that this original footage is never released for analysis. 
Imagine European parliamentarians and others in the EU openly and repeatedly calling for this man’s return—but receiving no answer.
Imagine how other human rights activists in his country feel when they see this happening.
And imagine that this country will apply for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in the near future. 
The country is Laos, and the man is Sombath Somphone.
Sombath’s enforced disappearance on 15 December 2012 has focused international attention on the disturbing situation of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Laos. 
It has sent a chilling, intimidating message to the country’s already fragile civil society. 
In the country demonstrating the fastest growth in Southeast Asia in 2012, the work of civil society, including individuals like Sombath, is critical in ensuring human rights are not sidelined during Laos’ rapid development. 
Today, the Lao government is being challenged to make space for human rights defenders and development activists such as Sombath. 
The Lao government recently expressed ambitions to join the UN Human Rights Council in the near future. How Laos responds to Sombath’s enforced disappearance will be a key test of its commitment to promoting and protecting human rights. 
Yesterday, European parliamentarians left on a visit to Laos. After the EU has repeatedly called for Sombath’s return, this visit is another key opportunity to use the EU’s leverage to answer the many outstanding questions around Sombath’s disappearance.
Until Sombath Somphone is back safely with his family, his case will not be forgotten and calls for his return will persist. 
People like my colleagues and me – some of us working everyday to promote human rights in our own, often non-controversial ways – hope to see Sombath’s disappearance investigated and prosecuted. 
And imagine we see him back soon and safely. 
Read Amnesty International’s report into Sombath’s disappearance last December. 
Read our joint letter urging the EU to maintain efforts for Sombath’s safe return.