Thu, Jan 04, 2001 - Page 8 News List

Progressing slowly on human rights

By Peter Huang 黃文雄

My assignment today is to present an overview of Taiwan's human rights conditions as they have evolved over the post-war years, and to do so in 20 minutes. This is certainly a tall order. It is my view that getting an idea of the paradoxical nature of Taiwan's human rights conditions is crucial, for it not only reveals the particular paths we have followed but it may also be our best guide as to how we should proceed in future.

I have chosen to concentrate on the post-war years for intellectual as well as pragmatic reasons. As is widely known, it was after World War II that the universalization of human rights reached a most important watershed. It was also in the early years of this period that Taiwan's history took a fateful turn. A colonial power, Japan, departed in 1945 and into its place stepped a semi-Leninist, semi-colonial rightwing regime in the form of General Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) one-party dictatorship. Ironically, back in those years the Chiang regime was not merely a part of the UN, but a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The human rights implications of this turn of events were clear almost from the very beginning. In February 1947, the year before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) came into existence, the KMT tyranny touched off an island-wide uprising. By the time the UDHR made its appearance, thousands in Taiwan had already been massacred, and an ensuing "clean-up" operation in the countryside (清鄉) was building up into another period of state terrorism. This latter period, reachings its peak in 1955, is now commonly known as the era of the "White Terror" (白色恐怖). During it, a few thousand more were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were arrested and otherwise terrorized.

There were two things at once terrifying and chillingly ironic about this long period of state terrorism. First, the KMT not only helped pass the UDHR but also duly signed, ratified, and deposited the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The KMT regime even hypocritically produced a domestic version of the Genocide Convention, which entered into Taiwan law in 1953 just when the "White Terror" was building up to a peak. Secondly, on a lesser scale but no less effective for the regime's purposes, this state terrorism continued well into the early-90s. The current national compensation law for victims of "improper trials" covers those victimized during that period as well.

The effects of this long period of state violations of human rights on Taiwan's society was to demolish whatever budding ideas of rights and freedoms came with modernization and somehow also survived Japan's harsh colonial rule. In the earlier days, a Taiwanese communist's worst fate was imprisonment. Later it became death or some other horrific fate.

In 1930, activists of the People's Party of Taiwan were able to get a League of Nations mission to come and investigate the colonial government's opium policy, making good use of the rivalry between imperial forces. Later, in the context of the Cold War, nothing like this was remotely conceivable. The West simply turned a blind eye: Taiwan was one of its anti-communist frontline states. The chilling result was that, until about a decade ago, professors of constitutional law did their best to skirt the issue of human rights. Under such conditions, there was little room for a human rights culture or tradition to grow.

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