OFFICE OF THE HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS High Commissioner’s lecture at the Faculty of Law and Political Science

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Lao People’s Democratic Republic




Dear Colleagues, Friends,


As the first UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – and as a former student of law myself – I am particularly delighted to be here with you, at the Faculty of Law and Political Science.

My thanks to the University for providing this opportunity for me to speak with you all. I very much look forward to our conversation.

I visited Lao PDR several times when I was based in the Southeast Asia region about twenty years ago, and this country is very close to my heart. I appreciate the deep roots of the Lao people’s cultural heritage and spirituality, and the tremendous diversity of the country’s minorities and Indigenous Peoples. The people of Laos have emerged from a century of colonialism and conflict with great resilience. I know too well the haunting legacy of war and its lingering impact on people, including continued suffering caused by unexploded ordnance left from that time. The United Nations stands with the people of Laos in achieving the special 18th Sustainable Development Goal you have set for the elimination of this scourge.

Today, the people of Lao PDR must face another wave of historic challenges, and how Laos navigates them will very much define the future of the country. Global warming, depleting ecosystems and environmental degradation have a severe impact on people’s ability to enjoy their human rights – including the right to life – and to achieve sustainable development. We face a global landscape in which poverty levels are increasing, income inequalities are driving insecurity, and over half the world’s poorest countries are in or near full-blown debt distress.

Lao PDR is also confronted by the rippling effects of the Myanmar crisis and its negative trans-border implications, in particular transnational organized crime and trafficking in persons.

Human rights can be the compass and guide for Lao PDR to overcome ongoing and future challenges.

As Laos charts its development path, economic growth alone will not redress structural inequalities or ensure the promise of human rights is fulfilled. A profound shift is needed to anchor economic policy in human rights, to protect the environment, and deliver on equality, non-discrimination, economic, social and cultural rights.

By ratifying a number of human rights treaties, Lao PDR has acceded to a roadmap to guide it. In the past few years, the Government has increasingly engaged with the UN human rights mechanisms, such as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and most recently the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

I am also aware that the Government is working towards finalising other reports – to the Committee against Torture and to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is also preparing to undergo the fourth cycle of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in May 2025.

When States engage sincerely with these processes, they offer an opportunity for national self-inquiry, reflection and discovery. They shed light on things that would otherwise be invisible. What is working and not working. Where are the gaps. Who is missing out. What are the solutions for change.

I welcome the increased participation of civil society and other stakeholders from Lao PDR in these processes, including this year’s review by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Last year, as we marked the 75th anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), we remembered those individuals whose efforts were instrumental in its drafting and adoption, including from this region. In fact, you may not know that we owe the framing of the Universal Declaration’s first article to an Indian feminist and advocate for independence. It was Hansa Mehta who insisted that “All human beings” rather than “All men” are born free and equal.

Human rights belong to all of us, wherever we are. They are our common heritage, drawn from the most profound of values represented across cultures and traditions, including the Buddhist tradition, as well as in Christianity, Islam, the Baha’i faith and other religions, but also indigenous wisdom. Human rights reflect our shared, universal human needs and aspirations - to be respected and treated as an equal, to live in dignity, and to live without fear in conditions of peace.

The Universal Declaration was shaped against the backdrop of the struggle for self-determination and its principles inspired many of those fighting against slavery, colonialism and apartheid. As a young law student in Austria, I found the UDHR profoundly inspiring – and I encourage you to read every single article. I still keep with myself the tattered copy I first read. I hope it continues to inspire young people like you, that these are universal values we can carry forward.

Today, as we look out at a world that is contending with so many interlocking and grave challenges - from escalating conflict, insecurity and inequalities to deepening geopolitical tensions and, above all, the climate catastrophe - we need to embrace the full potential of human rights as a pathway to the future, a pathway to solutions.

Leveraging human rights at every level – international, regional, national and local – has the power to unlock new ideas to inspire us and to forge new partnerships. At times, human rights conversations can be uncomfortable, but they are absolutely necessary for societies to evolve and flourish.

Much more needs to be done, though, to ensure the meaningful participation of everyone and of civil society more broadly, in all its diversity and in all areas of public life. And to protect those who express their views on issues of public interest.

Freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Lao PDR is a State party. These freedoms reflect a fundamental human need for agency in our lives and a role in shaping the direction of our societies. In our increasingly complex world, these rights are more important than ever, as the backbone of thriving, forward-looking societies.

The participation of individuals from all backgrounds, identities and gender in public life is absolutely essential. Differences of opinion, new approaches – just like at university - lead us to new approaches and are vital ingredients for resilient societies. We all stand to gain from learning from each other and having healthy debates.

Without a vibrant civic space, countries risk decaying from the inside. Corruption remains hidden, hollowing out society. Policies to address environmental concerns, development goals – indeed, any issue – are intrinsically weakened. They are incapable of reflecting the true complexity of what needs to be addressed. And they are equally incapable of taking into account the impact on people most affected.

Meaningful participation is also a key principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda’s vision of sustainable development is one that is fully grounded in international human rights standards, putting equality and non-discrimination at its centre and encompassing civil, political and cultural rights alongside economic and social rights and the right to development. Human rights and sustainable development are not separate but go hand-in-hand.

Lao PDR has made significant progress in addressing poverty over the last decade. As you continue on this development journey, it is important that development becomes fully inclusive, creating new opportunities for young people and women. After all, more than half of the population is under 25 years old. And I am pleased to see that more than half the students in this faculty are women.

It will be important to draw on the insights of other often marginalized groups, including ethnic minorities, rural communities and people with disabilities. The slogan of “Leaving No One Behind” that is the mantra of the SDGs has to be given life through policies, laws and programs that deliver on the needs and rights of every person, without discrimination.

The current global economic and financial crisis, compounded unsustainable levels of debt that was accumulated by the State mostly due to heavy investments in large-scale infrastructure projects, has reduced the fiscal space that the Government has at its disposal. There has been a substantial reduction of public spending on social services, including social infrastructure, social protection programmes, health, and education, and a sharp depreciation of the Lao Kip.

These developments have negatively impacted on the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights of Lao people, in particular the rural population, ethnic minorities, women, and children. It often leads to reduced investments in health and education are likely to exacerbate preexisting vulnerabilities. It can also lead to drop-outs in primary and secondary school, increased rates of child labour, early marriages, and adolescent pregnancies.

Our model of the Human Rights Economy, launched last year, puts all people at the centre of economic policies and decisions, including development strategies. It involves equipping economies to address effectively inequalities and poverty – and the Sustainable Development Goals more broadly.

The Human Rights Economy promotes a range of practical tools, including the use of disaggregated data to illuminate discrimination and cast a spotlight on the punishing levels of debt that are restricting fiscal space in so many lower income countries. Debt repayments should not be interfering with human rights commitments of States to apply maximum available resources to the realisation of the rights to health, education and other economic, social and cultural rights.

I appreciate, when it comes to development choices here, just how reliant Lao PDR is on its natural resources. We must not look away from the significant human and environmental costs that come with such heavy reliance on resource extraction and large-scale infrastructure projects. These activities have led to land degradation and biodiversity loss, and are damaging ecosystems, and an existing vulnerability to climate change. The costs of this to the country is why protecting the environment is a national priority.

The costs to communities - and to the country as a whole - underline why environmental protection deserves to be treated as a national priority. I encourage the Government to take all necessary measures, at the national and regional level, to protect, promote and fulfil the right to a healthy environment alongside the right to development.

I think of the great Mekong River, which I have had the privilege to travel on many times. This mighty waterway is an incredible resource for this country and the region. It underpins the human rights to food, water and livelihood for millions of people across several countries. It must be managed in ways that safeguard these rights and the populations who depend on it.

The ongoing process to develop an ASEAN declaration on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a timely and important initiative. Lao PDR, as Chair of ASEAN and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), can play an important role in taking this initiative forward and ensuring this declaration is grounded in international human rights standards and recognises the important role of Indigenous Peoples and environmental human rights defenders.

I appreciated the participation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs at our climate change roundtable in December at the High-Level Event for the Human Rights 75 Initiative. It is crucial that the voices of those countries least responsible but most affected by this human-made emergency are featured front and centre in any discussion on scaling-up effective action.

We know that every country must take urgent steps to implement the right to a healthy environment, and that those States most responsible for our planetary climate, biodiversity and pollution crisis must live up to their commitments on climate finance for adaptation as well as loss and damage.

In Lao PDR, and throughout the ASEAN region, the enjoyment of all human rights, including the rights to information, participation and access to justice, is of great importance to the protection of the environment. It is, therefore, critical that civil society in all its diversity is able to participate meaningfully in the process towards the ASEAN declaration.

And as ASEAN embarks on its important Vision 2045 process, it will be important to include perspectives of the whole spectrum of civil society, and to integrate human rights considerations into this process.


I firmly believe – and we see it every day in our work – that human rights are a catalyst for moving towards a world that is fairer, more peaceful and sustainable.

They must remain at the centre of discussions between States on the Pact of the Future which is due to be adopted later this year at the United Nations. This represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure the global system of governance that is ready for the challenges of the world ahead.

That future must be shaped by the viewpoints and experiences of young people like yourselves. It is your aspirations, your voices that must have an opportunity to influence the policies we so desperately need at every level – national, regional and global.

I thank the Government of Lao PDR for extending this invitation to visit. I thank the faculty and university for hosting this interaction. I welcome our frank and constructive dialogue. I hope this will open a new chapter for my Office to strengthen its engagement with the Government and people of Lao PDR, towards ensuring greater promotion and protection of human rights for all.

Thank you, Khop Chai.


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