Human Rights in Taiwan Under Review

by on Wednesday, 03 April 2013 Comments

From February 25 to March 1 2013, an international group composed by 10 human rights experts and legal scholars was invited to Taiwan to supervise the review process of the country's initial reports under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that Ma Ying-Jeou signed in March 2009. The structure and dynamics of the review meeting made the event unique in its genre, as it did not only expose the official human rights records to the scrutiny of an international committee, but it also provided Taiwan's civil society with the opportunity to actively participate and be directly involved in the monitoring process.

Despite not being a member of the United Nations (UN) since 1971, Taiwan ratified the two UN covenants with the aim to gradually conform its domestic laws and legislations to the international legal framework concerning the protection and safeguard of human rights. The Implementation Act was thus promulgated in December 2009 precisely with the objective to integrate the two UN covenants into the national legal system and to guarantee the actual legal effect of the two international treaties. To assess the degree of compliance of the domestic legal framework with the two UN covenants, an official human rights report was issued by Taiwan's government authorities in April 2012 and was subjected to the accurate examination of the review committee.

"The fact that a group of 10 international experts has been invited to Taiwan to review independently the human rights system of the country is undoubtedly an important fact," said Brian Barbour, Executive Board Member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network. "Moreover, it was remarkable to have hundreds of officials attending the review meeting every day, along with the presence of local NGOs which had the opportunity to directly speak with the committee members," he further added. Every day from February 25 to 27, the review committee attended formal meetings with NGOs members in the morning and with government representatives in the afternoon. The international panel of experts had therefore the possibility to incorporate human rights official records with in depth information provided by civil society actors.

The panel of international experts has repeatedly stressed the pivotal role that civil society actors had in submitting detailed comments on the situation of human rights in Taiwan to the review committee. Unlike the UN official model for the review of the implementation of the ICCPR and the ICESCR - which does not contemplate the formal partecipation of NGOs in the process, the review mechanism in Taiwan offered local human rights activists and practitioners "the opportunity to establish themselves as an authoritative voice," highlighted chairman of the Union for Civil Liberty Danthong Breen. During the review process, Covenants Watch, a coalition of civil associations set up to supervise the implementation of the two international treaties, and Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR) jointly presented a list of 45 core issues that, in their opinion, deserve closer attention by official authorities – and that are further addressed in the human rights "shadow report" which they published in May 2012.

After carefully examining the information discussed during the review meeting, on March 01 the panel of experts finally made public a set of recommendations in a press conference. In the "Concluding Observations" report, the committee members clearly pointed out that since the ICCPR and the ICESCR have been adopted by Taiwan's government as part of the national legal framework, they are already abiding and, in case of contradiction with domestic laws, they should take the precedence over the latter. The international experts thus called for Taiwan's government to strengthen the training of judges, legal practitioners and prosecutors in order to guarantee the proper application and enforcement of the two UN covenant also in practice.

The establishment of an independent human rights commission in Taiwan was highly recommended by the committee members, who further called for government authorities to adopt other UN international treaties and to better comply with the mechanism of human rights protection illustrated in the "Paris Principles".

Professor of law and human rights at the University of Vienna and former UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak pointed out that the most serious problem under the ICCPR is the continuous use of the death penalty in Taiwan[1]. Nowak, who already visited the country in November 2011 to give a speech on torture at National Taiwan University, stated that in the last 15 executions carried out by Taiwan's government there was a clear violation of Article 6(4) of the ICCPR, according to which "anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of sentence."

The issue of the death penalty was a significantly debated topic during the review meeting, especially in light of the recent six executions that Taiwan's government carried out on December 23 2012. When rumors regarding the imminent executions of death row inmates began to spread in late November, two members of the review committee - Novak and Eibe Riedel, had sent a letter to president Ma Ying-jeou asking government authorities not to carry out any execution before the review process would be completed. They stated that any eventual execution would seriously undermine the successful outcome of the review meeting and cause the international experts' possible withdrawal from their review assignment. On February 26 during the examination of ICCPR Articles 6 to 13, Novak has pointed out that notwithstanding the recent executions, the review committee members nonetheless decided to accomplish their duties and perform their responsibilities as previously accorded, with the aim of fostering the process of abolition of the death penalty in Taiwan.

Government representatives have repeatedly stated that the abolition of the death penalty is a sensitive issue in Taiwan, since 78% of the population supports it. The recent executions, for instance, had been carried out in the context of a growing concern regarding the actual level of security of Taiwanese society, in order to avoid further negative public reaction[2]. Given that the majority of the public opinion perceives the death penalty as a deterrent to criminal activities, official authorities have argued that the process of abolition must be a "gradual and progressive" one.

Asma Jahangir, head of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, has however stressed that in many countries where the death penalty has been now officially abrogated, the vast majority of the population was actually in favor of its use before the abolition process took place. She has moreover added that she understands that the process of abolition in Taiwan has to be "gradual and progressive", but she also called for government authorities to show a greater commitment in fastening the whole procedure.

Reiterating Jahangir's words, Novak has also pointed out that there is no clear evidence that the use of the death penalty acts as a crime deterrent, by adding that in the path toward abolition Taiwan should guarantee a greater compliance with the ICCPR with regard to the right to seek pardon or commutation of sentence. All six death row inmates recently executed in December had indeed applied for pardon and were waiting for the president's decision on their request prior their execution. The priority of Taiwan's government, the international experts unanimously stated, however still remains to promptly impose a moratorium on the use of the death penalty .

Another important issue highlighted by the review committee was the problem of forced evictions, which are currently affecting hundreds of family all over Taiwan. The experts addressed a number of specific cases, "but the most important point consisted in calling for Taiwan's government to provide proper consultation and adequate housing in case of proposed evictions," said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International's East Asia director.

Particular attention was laid on the highly controversial case of the forced eviction of the Huaguang community in Taipei. While a group of supporters and activists was demonstrating outside the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), showing their concern about the dramatic future of the community, some Huaguang representative members had the opportunity to directly illustrate their problematic housing situation to the international experts during the review meeting.

Huaguang residents are indeed facing an imminent and drastic eviction due to their "illegal occupation"[3] of the land where their dwellings are located, which is formally owned by the MOJ. The dislocation of the inhabitants and the demolition of their residences are the first steps toward the complete renewal of this traditional neighborhood located in the heart of Taipei, which seems to be doomed to become the new financial district of the city.

The review committee has pointed out that in this case, government legal proceedings aimed at the eviction of Huaguang community members and the demolition of their dwellings are evidently not complying with Article 11 of the ICESCR which, along with UN ICESCR General Comment 4 and 7, guarantees the right to adequate housing and declares the incompatibility of forced evictions with the requirements of the covenant. In particular, as highlighted by TAHR Executive Secretary Shih Yi-Hsiang, UN ICECSR General Comment 4(8) guarantees the legal protection of tenure, the latter defined also as "emergency housing and informal settlements, including occupation of land or property" – definition that clearly addresses the peculiar legal status of living communities such as the Huaguang community in Taipei.

In the "Concluding Observations", the international experts have therefore call for Taiwan's government to act accordingly the ICESCR by providing a formal consultation with Huaguang residents and by developing a settlement plan for the community members. In the meantime, they further added, the MOJ should halt forced evictions and demolitions plans in the area – and as pointed out by Shih Yi-Hsiang, Article 6 of the Implementation Act defines the "Concluding Observations" as a human rights report which has legal status, thus making it not just a compendium of suggestions but a set of abiding legal provisions.

With regard to refugee rights, Brian Barbour stated that Taiwan is one of the few Asian countries that actually has a refugee law, although still at draft stage. He suggested official authorities to take into account the comments that local NGOs submitted on the law to the committee members, with special reference to the exclusion of the Tibetan and Mainland Chinese population from the refugee law draft in Taiwan. He then added the importance of further investigating the issue of immigration detention and the situation of children who, in order to be kept with their detained parents, are currently imprisoned in Taiwan.

Most significantly, the international experts urged Taiwan's government to develop a follow-up plan and stressed the importance of an active collaboration between official authorities and civil society actors to comprehensively address human rights issues in Taiwan. According to the committee members, the government and local NGOs should interact more consistently to guarantee that progress is made in the implementation of the two UN covenants and in the enhancement of human rights protection in Taiwan.

Photo courtesy of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.

 


[1] After an unofficial moratorium on executions lasted from 2006 to 2009, in 2010 Taiwan's government resumed the use of the death penalty by carrying out four execution in April of the same year, five in March 2011 and six in December 2012.
[2] On December 2 2012 in Greater Tainan, a 10 year-old boy was found killed by a man who claimed that he was not worried about either the process nor the sentence, since he added that in Taiwan no one is sentenced to death for the murder of one or two people. The episode fueled a general feeling of indignation for and dissatisfaction with the national judicial system, which public opinion accused to be too clement toward criminals and inmates.
[3] The Huaguang community members have been recently sued by the MOJ with the alleged accusations of "illegal occupation" (違法占用) and "illegal profit" (不當得利), but given the particular history of this neighborhood, government's decision has triggered the indignation of Huaguang residents and their supporters. The peculiarity of this residential community has indeed to be traced back to 1949, when the Nationalist Party (Guomindang, KMT) flew from mainland China to Taiwan, followed by a high number of military and party officials, along with their families. As the lack of abundant land where to build dwellings for the "new incomers", government authorities offered military and official employees the chance to settle down in Huaguang neighborhood, which at that time was property of the MOJ. Since then, relatives of the first generation of KMT officials have been living in Huaguang, by paying taxes and being provided with water and electricity, among other services. What has been recently labeled as "illegal" seems suddenly not to take into consideration the "legal" agreement between KMT government and its employees in the past, which had not been questioned until a decade ago when a new urban project for the area was proposed.

 

Caterina Pavese

Recently graduated with an Msc in Anthropology from the LSE, Research fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

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