Thu, Jan 04, 2001 - Page 8 News List

Progressing slowly on human rights

By Peter Huang 黃文雄

Here it's important to note that many countries share a history similar to Taiwan's, but there were conditions peculiar to Taiwan, and it is Taiwan's peculiarities that I wish to stress today. Two peculiarities are particularly worth noting, one having to do with international and the other domestic situations. Internationally, when Taiwan was expelled from the UN in 1971, it also became severed from the international human rights regime. The timing, 1971, was critical. It was in the mid-70s that two important UN human rights covenants took effect and related institutional and operational mechanisms came into place. Yet Taiwan was no longer with the UN. By 1971, Taiwan had signed and ratified seven human rights conventions, including the two covenants, but these were merely international public-relations exercises seeking to polish the image of Taiwan, then known as "Free China." After the execution of these conventions, all the papers were duly locked away in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the ink was dry. In fact, Taiwan will not have a published compilation of international human rights instruments until an NGO-compiled volume appears next month, although the first UN compilation came out in 1966 and Chinese was, then as now, one of the major languages officially used by the UN.

Taiwan has been severed from the international human rights regime for the past 30 years. What might have happened had Taiwan stayed in? We shall soon see that this is by no means idle speculation. Taiwan's government would have needed enough officials sufficiently knowledgeable about human rights to know how to vote at the annual conferences in Geneva and at the General Assembly of the UN. Right now it has none.

Second, Taiwan's government and NGOs would have needed to take part in a large number of UN conferences and projects relating to human rights. Right now it is totally excluded, except for a few NGOs attached to accredited international groups.

Third,Taiwan would have had a UN depository. Right now Taiwan's largest seven libraries contain a grand total of 162 items of information in Chinese relating to human rights.

Fourth, Taiwan would have had to accede to at least the major conventions and submit the required national reports. So far it has never had to.

Fifth, to do this, universities would most likely have had to step in to help. Right now less than half a dozen courses are offered at over 100 universities and colleges.

Sixth,Taiwan's government would have had to have human rights policies of sorts. Until last May, it had none.

The cataloguing could go on.

Now, suppose we try to imagine not only counterfactuals like these but also their combined impacts over 30 years on Taiwan's human rights awareness and practice. What a great and irreplaceable loss they would translate into!

I believe it is hard to escape two conclusions from this exercise. First,Taiwan has a very poor infrastructure for advancing rights. Second, its severance from the international human rights regime has played a large part in this lack of a more adequate infrastructure, one in proportion to its economic strength and standard of education. It would also be hard, I think, to imagine a better negative argument for the necessity of an international regime for advancing rights in individual countries.

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