Taking Rights Seriously: A Report from Taiwan

Taking Rights Seriously: A Report from Taiwan
With the December elections to the Legislative Yuan approaching,
political maneuvering in Taiwan is gearing up to full frenzy,
giving the impression that the politicians are engaged in a deadly
serious struggle. Some of them have gone so far as to suggest that
the outcome of the elections could well decide the political future
for years to come. The economic slowdown, by imparting a sense
of crisis to the political campaign, has not helped matters.
Despite all this, the government and the people are beginning to
take human rights seriously. Indeed the civil society, especially
certain NGOs, has been ahead of the government, urging it to
move more boldly. Yet it can not be denied that, since it took
office in May 2000, the new government has openly committed
itself to the promotion and protection of human rights, and almost
all government ministries are under pressure to act on the
President’s promises.
How serious are these commitments? What are the obstacles to
their fulfillment? And what can be expected in the near future?
These are the questions I would like to address.
For many decades, the topic of human rights was taboo in Taiwan.
To maintain itself in power, the Kuomintang (KMT) was
determined to govern with an iron fist. International human rights
standards were plainly a luxury that it did not feel it could afford.
The two main international human rights covenants (the ICCPR
and ICESCR), signed by the government representative at the
United Nations in 1967, were simply filed away at the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, out of sight, out of mind.
It was not until the mid-1980s that political reforms were initiated
by President Chiang Ching-kuo, in part to accommodate the
growing challenge of the opposition, known as the “tang-wai”
(literally, “outside of the party (i.e., the KMT)”). The Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP), which became the ruling party last year,
was established in 1986. When Vice President Lee Teng-hui
assumed the presidency upon Chiang’s death in January 1988, it
was obvious that a new era had been ushered in. The control
exercised by the government was gradually relaxed, and
opposition politicians increasingly tolerated (if not in fact tacitly
encouraged by Lee as a counterweight to his more conservative
rivals within the KMT). In addition, new social movements
sprang up to promote democratic reforms and the protection of
human rights for various disadvantaged groups, such as women,
laborers, and indigenous peoples. Long-suppressed energy and
creativity was released, and a sense of excitement prevailed,
especially among the youth.
Beginning in 1998, the idea of creating a national human rights
commission was taken up in informal discussions among NGOs.
In December 1999, some twenty-two NGOs announced the
formation of a coalition to promote the project. Two working
groups were set up. One group was charged with persuading the
candidates in the March 2000 presidential elections to pledge
their support, and the other group was given the task of drafting a
bill to establish a national human rights commission which would
reflect the values and commitments of the civil society.
The presidential campaign was then moving into high gear. Lien
Chan, the KMT nominee, was first to endorse the project, and the
DPP’s Chen Shui-bian and the others followed suit. After Chen’s
election victory, the first working group continued their efforts, in
order to convince the president-elect that he should openly
commit himself to the cause of human rights in his inaugural
address on May 20. Reliable sources reported that it was not until
the very last minute that Chen and his close advisors agreed to
discuss human rights in his inaugural speech. To the surprise and
amazement of the international community, the President pledged
to return to the international human rights standards -- he
mentioned particularly the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
and the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of the 1993
World Conference on Human Rights --making them the
foundation of the legal system in Taiwan. He made three specific
solemn pledges on behalf of the new government: first, he would
request the Legislative Yuan to ratify the International Bill of
Rights; secondly, he would create an independent national human
rights commission; and thirdly, he would invite Amnesty
International and the International Commission of Jurists to
advise him as how to implement his commitment through further
measures to protect human rights.
The second working group set up by the coalition took six months
to complete its assigned task of drafting a bill for the national
human rights commission. It was decided early on that the draft
legislation must confirm to the minimum standards of the Paris
Principles, while at the same time taking into account the political
reality facing the island state. The experiences of a number of
countries -- including Thailand, Indonesia, Canada and Australia - were also carefully studied for lessons to be learned. As a result,
the draft they produced insisted that the national human rights
commission should be independent, in terms of both personnel
and budget; it should be efficient and proactive, especially
concerning economic and social rights and disadvantaged groups;
and it should fully reflect the diversity of the rapidly changing
society. The coalition chose June 4 to present its draft legislation
to the public, consciously having in mind the tragedy that had
taken place in China more than a decade before.
As it turned out, the draft legislation met with some opposition,
especially from the Control Yuan, which perceived a threat to its
powers and jurisdiction regarding abuses of official power. It is
too early to say exactly how serious this obstacle will be, however,
until the legislative process progresses further. Given the virtual
impasse in the current politicized environment in the Legislative
Yuan, it will take much time and efforts for the draft legislation to
become law.
In August 2000, the President proceeded to appoint an advisory
committee on human rights affairs, with his energetic Vice
President Annette Lu as its chairperson. For almost a year now,
this committee has been fairly active, holding hearings on many
issues concerning the protection of rights, including the abuse of
investigatory powers by the public prosecutors, the use of the
RU-486 and the situation of indigenous peoples. For some critics,
the committee did not have the kind of resources necessary to do
adequate research work and conduct proper hearings. It was also
taken to task for failing to better define its role and functions.
Parallel to the creation of the Presidential Advisory Committee,
relevant government ministries were given different assignments
in furthering the president’s commitment. For example, the
Research, Development and Evaluation Commission was
instructed to come up with the government’s version of a draft bill
to create a national human rights commission, while the Ministry
of Justice was to draft a Fundamental Human Rights Law. Both
agencies have been working hard since then, and from time to
time, the Ministry of Justice has reported publicly on its progress,
including specific articles that had been included in the draft law.
The latest news was that homosexual couples are to be guaranteed
the right to adopt children. As for the promotion of human rights
education, the Ministry of Education must be given credit for
having taken the first steps. For example, with the collaboration
of scholars and experts, the Ministry has supported training
programs for primary and secondary school teachers in teaching
basic human rights ideas.
From the brief survey above, it would appear that great progress
has been made in the promotion and protection of human rights. A
more realistic assessment, nevertheless, must take into account
the problems encountered and the obstacles and resistance to be
overcome. To begin with, the power struggles at the Legislative
Yuan have certainly discouraged the government and the
opposition from working together for the promotion of rights; at
present, the upcoming December elections are apparently
consuming all the energy and resources of the political elites. The
sense of excitement and expectation, so obvious merely a year
ago, is quickly turning into discouragement and dismay.
Moreover, it is clear that the long decades of authoritarian rule by
the KMT and isolation from the international human rights system
have left Taiwan ill-prepared to live up to the international
standards. It has been pointed out repeatedly that the past thirty
years happened to be a time of great development not only in
human rights theory, but in practice as well. The United Nations
has been steadfastly, if slowly, clarifying human rights values and
codifying them in law, while NGOs have been increasingly active
and creative in pushing for rights. On the contrary, Taiwan has
been almost sidelined completely. It has never had any trained
governmental officers capable of dealing with human rights
matters, and hardly any scholars and experts familiar with the
issues. Before 1995, no courses in human rights were offered in
any of the universities and colleges. And until now, the collective
libraries in the country boast no more than two hundred items in
Chinese on human rights. Altogether a sad spectacle indeed.
Behind all these deficiencies and weaknesses lurked the lingering
baleful influence of traditional values. In spite of what the
advocates for Asian values claim, traditional values -- especially
as governments had formulated and used them through the ages -are hardly compatible with rights and freedoms understood in our
time. A few people, nevertheless, still have such a partiality for
that argument, and they have tended to compensate for their
weakness in reasoning with loudness in their pronouncements.
Fortunately they are declining in influence and have not been able
to dictate the course of action for the entire community.
Looking into the near future for Taiwan, no great breakthrough in
promotion of human rights should be anticipated. Progress is
more likely to be incremental. For example, the abolition of death
penalty recently promised by the Minister of Justice will not be
easily achieved, and a national human rights commission won’t
be set up soon. As for human rights education, the ongoing efforts
will require substantially more time and energy to achieve
significant results.
Yet it is equally clear that there is no turning back to authoritarian
rule and gross violations of human rights. The government simply
could not go backward without provoking widespread resistance
from the people. From the perspective of NGOs, ironically, the
risk is that the new levels of commitment and support from the
government could -- intentionally or inadvertently -- result in a
loss of their autonomy, denying them an independent role. The
NGOs need to be vigilant, remaining as critical and passionate as
they were during the previous era of trials and tribulations.
As for its impact beyond Taiwan, advancement in rights will
definitely improve the image of the island republic in the
international community; yet this should not be the priority
concern. Moreover, if progress in Taiwan helps to put pressure on
the government of the People’s Republic of China, and persuades
the people there to be bolder and more resolute in their quest for
rights and freedoms, so much the better. The raison d’être of the
human rights movement, however, can only be the real enjoyment
of rights and dignity by all the people, especially for the poor, the
weak and the disadvantaged.
Mab Huang
Professor, Political Science Department
Director, Chang Fo-chun Center for the
Study of Human Rights
Soochow University
Taipei, Taiwan