In and of itself, the Cabinet's introduction of an anti-terrorism act is not necessarily an alarming development. After all, since the multiple terrorist attacks in the US on Sept. 11, 2001, most countries -- including liberal democracies -- have revised their systems of laws governing security activities. Reorganization and the streamlining of the many intelligence, law enforcement, military and judicial branches comprising the prevention of and response to terrorism is a logical reaction to the reality of terrorism.
What should make Taiwanese pause, however, is the nature of the proposed bill, which upon close scrutiny presents a fundamental threat to liberty and human rights.
The act's fundamental flaws are twofold: First, it fails to define terrorism or "acts of terror" and thus provides authorities with an open-ended means of targeting individuals and groups whose activities may be perceived as representing a threat to the nation. Without a legal definition of what constitutes terrorism -- an interpretation which can span the spectrum from "intent to commit an act of terrorism" to "sponsoring a terrorist organization" to the actual "commission of an act of terrorism" -- states will soon embark upon the very dangerous slippery slope of open interpretations and subsequent abuse. In many cases, a loose definition can mean the difference between a decision to investigate or not and investigations will be launched when they shouldn't, with dire repercussions for the individuals targeted.
The second flaw, which follows upon the first, is the minimal oversight that would be part of the new act. Absent an independent and proactive oversight body, law enforcement agencies and intelligence services will be at liberty to engage in activities in breach of civil liberties and privacy rights -- even more so when the definition of terrorism is nonexistent, as is the case here.
Without a system of checks and balances, agencies will exploit the permissibility that this offers them and not only target individuals who should not be investigated in the first place, but will also do so with an inappropriate level of intrusion -- from wiretaps to e-mail interception -- as has happened in the US and, sadly, in many other countries.
Like other countries, Taiwan may feel compelled to do its part, as Cabinet spokesman Cheng Wen-tsang (鄭文燦) said, in the anti-terrorism project. Sept. 11, 2001, has led democratic countries, such as Canada and Britain, not only to radically change their anti-terrorism laws but to increase their intelligence activities (or even go to war) to prove that they are on the US side, even when doing so runs counter to their national security interests.
Whether Taiwan should become a participant in that international endeavor is debatable. But to implement a law whose provisions are reminiscent of the police state that preceded a democratic Taiwan and whose reach is not unlike that of the very system across the Strait, is against the very self-definition of Taiwan as a democracy and does not serve its interests.
Having experienced firsthand what post-Sept. 11, 2001, security intelligence is like and how damaging to democracies -- even mature ones, like Canada -- it can be, I cannot be forceful enough in urging the Taiwanese government that it ensure that a clear definition of what constitutes terrorism is provided and that a system of accountability proportionate to the new anti-terrorism measures be implemented.
The well-publicized Maher Arar case in Canada, who because of shoddy intelligence work and lack of oversight ended up in a Syrian jail, where he was tortured, along with numerous cases of abuse in the US, should serve as reminders of what can happen, even in democracies, when a cause is taken to an extreme and when states drink from the poisoned chalice in the name of alliances or security.
Even advanced democracies like Canada, whose accountability system is, at least nominally, far more robust than what is being proposed in the new bill, has fallen victim to this overreach.
Despite its many successes in democratization, Taiwan remains a young democracy that is slowly but surely falling on its feet. It therefore cannot assume that it can embark upon its own "war on terrorism," or not fall where more mature democracies fell, without ensuring that its newfound liberties are protected. It should learn from other countries and observe the instances where they overreached.
Then Taipei should ask itself if such far-reaching measures are necessary, and if so, how it can ensure that they won't cause more harm than good.
Failure to do so can only result in the erosion of the nation's precious albeit fragile democratic values and comports the risk of making it resemble the country it doesn't want to be: China.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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