Human rights and the presidential election

Approaching the Universal Human Rights Month, both the Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen camps are endeavouring to build their own images by presenting their human rights manifestos. The current ruling party KMT announced that it would implement no more executions (literally) of the death penalty before the election: in contrast to the impression it had given the voters previously, concerning its determination to build a powerful judicial system preceded by the standing down of a minister of justice, who opposed the death penalty.

Between 2010 and 2011, nine people were executed, in contrast with the record of the former government. During the Chen Shui-bian years, only two people were executed in the first year of his administration, before the government closed the discussion on this controversial issue.

The human rights records kept by the Kuomintang party have been rarely seen in post-Second World War Taiwanese history. Most of the records show inappropriate arrests and confinements of innocent individuals during the Martial Law period. The rise of the DPP was closely associated with its concerns for the weak and marginalized. Under the DPP rules, nevertheless, the government did not reach any significant achievements in the area of transitional justice apart from restoring the reputation of former political prisoners. The steadfast structure of government administration remained untouched; the reformation of judicial and taxing systems was not complete. The rights of indigenous populations, gender minorities and new immigrants were not satisfactorily regulated.

Since the KMT came to power again in 2008, Taiwan’s human rights record deteriorated, due to the government’s honeymoon relationship with China. The clashes between police and activists protesting Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s visit in November 2008 and the consequent events were seen as an indicator of dwindling freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press freedom. In 2010, when Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, Taiwan’s government failed to condemn China’s human right violations soon enough to meet the pressure of public opinion. The newly created Presidential Office Human Rights Consultative was seen as a delayed response to balance the criticism.

The honorary chairman of the KMT, Lien Chan, being awarded the inaugural China Confucius Peace Prize was another embarrassing moment (this year’s winner, Vladimir Putin). The silence of government associated sectors on the persecution of Chinese dissidents, including the vague attitude held by Taipei Fine Arts Museum towards Ai Weiwei’s arrest, all make the promise of the current ruling party to pursue principles of human rights unconvincing and doubtful.

The recent maid abuse case involving Liu Shan-shan, the representative of Taiwan’s Kansas Office, again challenged the extent to which the Taiwanese government respects human rights in comparison to diplomatic immunity. This puzzle, however, does not only confront the KMT government, but the entire Taiwanese society. There are too many topics that are seldom discussed and underplayed not only by the government, but also the general population, due to the exhausting political contest between blue and green. There is still a general acceptance of the death penalty. The discrimination of minorities persists. Capitalists’ exploitation of labourers still plagues the labour market.

One view as to why Taiwan’s progress towards a “normal society” remains unfulfilled, is the possible collective mentality resulting from the long authoritative regime. People do not see the subordination to authority as an evil but only banality. They think that one should envisage the future instead of looking at mistakes made in the past. Therefore, the general public are indifferent regarding most of the unfair treatments in their daily life. They are also ignorant in most aspects of legal life. For example, in the recent restored injustice case of Jiang Guo-qing, an innocent soldier tortured and eventually gunned down by the military, the state only reimbursed the bereaved family without paying indemnity. Most of the public, including the press, do not understand the different nature between these two forms of compensation.

In November,  Human Rights We Care (台灣大選人權陣線), a league comprising thirteen NGOs, was formed to monitor the human rights manifestos of all presidential candidates. It has issued a questionnaire for all candidates to clarify the content of their human rights policy. Judging on the performance of two ruling parties in the past decade, the government’s actions were always sluggish and passive. The vast and unshakable system of government, which was left behind by the past regime, seems to be the main obstacle. If current KMT government cannot live up to its advantage in developing a small and powerful official procedure, but instead designs the structure of the public sector according to its obsessive desire to connect with China, which is already happening, then the reformation of human rights in Taiwan will be always hampered by its own bureaucracy, and will have to perpetually rely on the slow growth of civil society.

Harry Yi-Jui Wu is a DPhil student at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford.