Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is an authoritarian one party state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. The central government continues to deny citizens the right to change their government. The government infringes on citizens' right to privacy and does not respect the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, or association. Corruption in the police and judiciary persists. Prison conditions are harsh and at times life threatening. Local officials at times restrict religious freedom and citizens' freedom of movement. Discrimination against minority groups remains a problem, as does trafficking in persons. There are no domestic nongovernmental human rights organizations. Workers' rights are restricted.
Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives
Through diplomatic engagement, public diplomacy efforts, and assistance programs, the U.S. Government urges the Lao government to promote rule of law and good governance, including the protection of rights of all ethnic and religious groups in the country. Specifically this includes pressing the government for increased transparency regarding the resettlement of ethnic Hmong from Thailand and from conflict areas within the country; visiting resettled Hmong villagers to assess their well-being; traveling to provinces in order to assess conditions on the ground, including the human rights situation; and meeting regularly with other members of the international community to discuss the human rights situation.
The United States also seeks to strengthen the emerging but very fragile civil society and continues to encourage the formation and development of locally run and staffed organizations. The country's poorly developed system of governance, dire shortage of trained personnel, and prevalence of corruption are all major challenges, which the United States address by sending government officials to international training to better understand international norms; presenting U.S. speakers to government audiences to address issues such as more effective and representative governance, the rule of law, and multicultural education; and having U.S. officials meet regularly with Lao officials to promote better governance.
Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance
The U.S. Government supports 18 libraries and institutions in the country with periodicals and books, giving citizens access to international news and Western media. In October the U.S. embassy gave grants to local broadcasters to support English language training for journalists and staff. Upgraded English language skills will open doors to new sources of information, allow for greater contact with foreign news organizations and foreign journalists, and build a more professional journalist corps. The U.S. embassy provides information on international human rights and democracy practices and norms to university students and the general public. The U.S. embassy uses the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) to promote human rights, sponsoring government officials studying U.S. efforts against human trafficking, the role of NGOs in promoting women's issues, and entrepreneurship for women, among other topics. The U.S. embassy prioritizes IVLP candidates for programs in U.S. foreign policy, human rights issues, and antitrafficking programs. In September the U.S. ambassador and Lao recording artist Kai launched "Traffic: An MTV Special," a U.S.-funded documentary that is the cornerstone of MTV's EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) campaign to prevent trafficking in persons in the Asia-Pacific region; this documentary reached 300 million households in Asia.
Promoting good governance is an important element of the U.S. Government's efforts to support democracy and human rights. The U.S. embassy highlighted the U.S. presidential election as an example of democratic governance with "Election Morning" programs. The U.S. ambassador hosted 100 Lao officials and international community representatives; separately, the U.S. embassy hosted an event for more than 200 teachers and students. Earlier in the year, the U.S. embassy arranged a two-week visit by two U.S. political science professors to conduct a series of lectures and discussions on the U.S. election process and on international human rights institutions and the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Speaking on the topics of "Understanding U.S. Elections: The 2008 Presidential and Congressional Elections," "Overview of Fundamental Issues in International Human Rights," "The Development of a Human Rights Commission for ASEAN," and "Concepts in International Political Economy," the professors conducted lectures for government officials and more than 180 students from the faculties of law and political science at the National University of Laos in Vientiane and Champassak University in Pakse. They then conducted a roundtable discussion with members of the Bar Association on legal developments in the country and within ASEAN. The U.S. ambassador hosted an event at which the professors discussed the 2008 U.S. election process for more than 50 senior participants. The professors' presentations remain available on the embassy's Web site for subsequent access by a broader local audience.
The embassy was heavily engaged in the October visit of a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom to discuss a broad range of human rights and religious freedom concerns directly with senior government leaders. During the visit, the government agreed in principle to host an international conference on religion in 2009. U.S. officials visited Vientiane for discussions with key officials and religious leaders on the continuing importance of educating local officials and religious leaders on the prime minister's decree on religion. The U.S. embassy presses the Lao Front for National Construction, the government body overseeing religious issues, to resolve cases of religious intolerance by local officials. U.S. officials use their working relations with provincial and central government officials to raise these cases, often resulting in a more expeditious resolution of problems.
The embassy arranged for a U.S. district court judge to visit the country in August to conduct workshops on the rule of law and judicial administration. The judge spoke to audiences at the Ministry of Justice, the Bar Association, and the National University's law faculty about a wide range of legal and judicial issues. The embassy also arranged in November for the president of a California city council to participate in a U.S. speaker program designed to focus on local governance issues. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved a lecture by this speaker on the sensitive issue of relations between Hmong-Americans and the Lao people. The embassy arranged in April for a U.S. professor to address more than 170 participants, including officials from the Ministry of Education, teachers, and students on education in multicultural environments. The professor described the many types of multicultural environments in the United States and encouraged teachers to teach students to appreciate different cultures, promote understanding between people, and overcome stereotypes and discrimination.