Thu, Jan 04, 2001 - Page 8 News List

Progressing slowly on human rights

By Peter Huang 黃文雄

This is the first of the two peculiarities I mentioned earlier.

Now the second, the one to do with domestic evolution. Taiwan has made undeniable progress in human rights since our liberalization and democratization began about a decade and a half ago. This progress has taken mainly two forms.

First, personal, political and certain civil rights such as freedoms of speech and association are now relatively secure.

These might be called "beachhead rights" because they helped open up space for Taiwan's civil society to emerge from severe state domination in the pre-democratization period. Over the last decade, civil organizations have made possible a second cluster of gains beyond "beachhead rights." The gains are uneven and scattered, reflecting the varying strengths of the civil movements; improvements in legal rights (but not the badly needed structural reform of the judicial system), in welfare rights (we have a national health insurance scheme, but no unemployment insurance or pension scheme worthy of the names), womens' rights (but workers rights fall far behind). I shan't go on. It appears that Taiwan has settled down quickly, too quickly one might say, into the politics and business as usual one wouldn't expect from a society so soon after its transition to democracy.

Although we will have to oversimplify, there is an explanation for this overall pattern. Taiwan was supposed to have gone through a "Quiet Revolution." In fact, it was neither quiet nor a revolution. The ruling party, the KMT, was in power until seven months ago. What happened was that, caught in the most recent worldwide wave of democratization and under popular pressure in the mid-80s, it had to make concessions in order to stay in power. The concessions mainly took the form of opening up the political process, hence the unfreezing of those "beachhead rights." But everything else has had to be struggled for bit by bit. At least as far as human rights are concerned, this is not a healthy situation. To see this, we need only remind ourselves of the case of South Africa, of how much that country's National Action Plan Steering Committee has achieved in building an infrastructure for securing and advancing human rights. The comparison is enlightening because Taiwan enjoys advantages over South Africa in terms of economic and educational standards.

Even from a survey as brief as this one, three conclusions are clear. First, the near-impossibility of building up a human rights culture and tradition in Taiwan's pre-democratization period made for the lack of a strong, independent, internal drive to advance these rights in Taiwan. Second, this lack combined with Taiwan's international isolation led to an inadequate infrastructure for advancing rights, either by international standards or in proportion to Taiwan's other achievements. And third, if Taiwan is to achieve greater advancement of human rights either for itself or for the world, it cannot continue to rely on bit-by-bit accretion.

Seen in this light, I believe that the new administration should be applauded for beginning to address the problems by proposing to establish a national human rights commission, to incorporate the International Bill of Human Rights into a domestic bill of rights, and to build up and intensify international human rights exchanges. I need only to point out that this is but a beginning. Something more comprehensive, such as a national action plan is still needed. For this, and for the purpose of putting plans into daily practice, encouragement and assistance from the international human rights community, such as this conference exemplifies, will be both crucial and welcome.

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