By Malaak Jamal and Jenny Wang

Authoritarianism in Laos is at the root of illegal land grabs, land grievances, and ongoing human rights violations. The upcoming elections in Laos are unlikely to change this. International business stakeholders, however, can do more to support local communities and uphold fundamental human rights.

The Lao government will hold National Assembly elections on February 21. Parliamentary elections take place every five years, but are neither free nor fair. The government has boasted of voter turnouts close to 100% in previous elections.

Laos, or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), is ruled by a fully authoritarian regime, according to the Human Rights Foundation’s political regime analysis. The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is the only political party recognized in the Lao Constitution.

The upcoming rubber-stamp elections in Laos will not make a difference in the lives of Lao citizens. Under authoritarian rule, Lao people are unable to meaningfully participate in politics.

With its people silenced, the Lao government often puts forward policies without thinking about the consequences. Eager to boost the economy, the government decided to open doors to foreign investment, but local communities, most affected by new development projects, are left to their own devices to deal with the external costs.

As international businessmen rake it in, hunger and food insecurity are a threat to millions in Laos. But when Lao people protest against these projects, they risk being harshly punished, arbitrarily detained, or disappeared by the government.

In 2019, Lao environmentalist Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly was sentenced to five years in prison for speaking up for flood victims and criticizing the government’s response to the crisis on Facebook. In the same year, seven activists were detained for planning a pro-democracy rally in Vientiane.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Parents carry their children as they leave their home during the flood after the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos, July 26, 2018.

Under LPRP rule, human rights violations are rampant, but they receive little attention around the world. As activists work to raise awareness, international businesses in Laos — in accordance with international law — must actively ensure they are not being complicit in abetting the LPRP’s authoritarian regime.

According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, business enterprises are obliged to “to respect, protect, and fulfill fundamental human rights” throughout their business practices. They must first familiarize themselves with international standards on human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, before clinching business deals with the Lao government.

Corporate stakeholders must engage in thorough risk analyses and robust social impact assessments of their investments in Laos. Moreover, international businesses based in a member state of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development should also refer to the Declaration on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises, which emphasizes the importance of human rights due diligence and remedying adverse human rights impacts.

To prevent potential negative impact on the local communities, business stakeholders should orchestrate efforts to increase public knowledge of rights and legal resources at a grassroots level. They should help create a publicly available database to document land concessions and monitor illegal land grabs in Laos.

These initiatives will help build transparency and raise awareness about how foreign investment sustains human rights abuses in Laos. International business stakeholders and their global platforms have the potential to galvanize positive change in Laos if they commit to proper due diligence and respect the concerns of local communities.

As polls open for the National Assembly elections, keep in mind that these elections are neither free nor fair. The world must remember the human rights defenders and dissidents who have been silenced and disappeared for speaking up. At a time of rapid infrastructure development in Laos, business leaders must recognize that more can and should be done to protect the lives of those most affected by their investments.

Malaak Jamal (@malaak_jamal) is the Senior Policy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation (@HRF). Jenny Wang (@jennyathrf) is a Strategic Advisor at the Human Rights Foundation.

The Human Rights Foundation’s Center for Law and Democracy recently published a report on the impact of foreign investments on human rights in Laos.

READ NEXT: Human Rights Day: Taiwan’s Democratization Gives Hope To 4.2 Billion Under Authoritarian Rule

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.