Reflecting on human rights

Today is Human Rights Day. It also marks 33 years since the Kaohsiung Incident, a key event which set Taiwan on the path to democracy. While Taiwan has made many advances in human rights since the days of White Terror and Martial Law it is worth taking some time to reflect on the state of human rights in Taiwan today.

Many of Taiwan’s human rights problems are rooted in a transition to democracy without transitional justice. The legacy of the authoritarian party-state that governed Taiwan during Martial Law still influences the politics of the present.

The case of Chiou Ho-shun (邱和順) has spanned almost the entire post-Martial Law period. In many ways Chiou’s case is symbolic of Taiwan’s human rights problems.

Chiou was first sentenced to death in 1989. The case against Chiou was based on confessions under torture which were later retracted. In 1994, two prosecutors and ten police officers were convicted for using torture to obtain confessions in one of the cases. Chiou remains on death row and Amnesty International are campaigning for a re-trial of his case.

The case of the Hsichih Trio shares much in common with that of Chiou Ho-shun. The three men were also convicted on the basis of confessions extracted by police using torture. They spent 21 years in a legal battle during which they faced the death penalty and spent 12 years in prison. The trio were finally acquitted this year (‘Hsichih Trio’ are finally freed, Taipei Times, 1 Sep. 2012). .

More recently there have been concerns about the judicial process being used as a political tool. Since 2008 a number of politicians from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have faced trial on corruption related charges. In cases such as those of Yunlin County Commissioner Su Chih-fen (蘇治芬) and former National Security Council head Chiou I-jen (邱義仁) the defendants were found not guilty. This lends weight to claims of judicial persecution (Rooting out political corruption, Taipei Times editorial, 3 Dec. 2012).

All theses cases highlight the need for judicial reform. This has been something that President Ma has promised since he was first elected in 2008. Yet up to now he has delivered precious little. With Ma’s party controlling both the executive and legislature there is no excuse for the lack of action.

Furthermore, in 2009 the Ma government ratified two important United Nations human rights treaties. These treaties do not specify abolition of the death penalty, but impose strict standards on its use (Taiwan’s sham over death penalty, Taipei Times, 17 Nov. 2012). In spite of this Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators recently put forward proposals to expand the range of crimes in which the death penalty should apply (Death penalty changes proposed, Taipei Times, 5 Dec. 2012).

Although Taiwan’s government is failing, it’s civil society is blooming. The tireless work of organisations such as Taiwan Association for Human Rights (台灣人權促進會), Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (台灣廢除死刑推動聯盟) and the Judicial Reform Foundation (司法改革基金會) has contributed to many important human rights gains over the past two decades.

The annual LGBT Pride Parade highlights Taiwan’s tolerance and the ongoing efforts of the LGBT community to gain important rights.

Taiwan’s youth also provide cause for hope. University students are at the forefront of the current movement against a media monopoly. Some of these students drew on their experiences in the 2008 Wild Strawberry Movement (Student protest leader speaks on civil liberties, Taipei Times, 3 Dec. 2012).

Taiwan’s transition to democracy without transitional justice means that the people must be ever vigilant and active in standing up for human rights. Justice and human rights in Taiwan will only come through a grassroots effort of the people.

*This is a longer version of a letter published in the Taipei Times on 8 December. On the same day the Taipei Times published an article about a survey by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy that showed Taiwanese people feel human rights are deteriorating.  On 7 December Amnesty International released a statement saying that the government should not bow to public pressure to use the death penalty.