Wed, Apr 08, 2009 - Page 8 News List

A breakthrough in human rights

By Peter Huang 黃文雄

On March 31, the legislature debated and ratified two international conventions. Such an event would be big news in more enlightened countries, but only one of Taiwan’s Chinese-language newspapers reported on it, and that report was rather short. In writing this article, I want to compensate for this puzzling omission.

The two conventions that the legislature approved are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are the three most important global human rights agreements.

These UN conventions are regarded as parent laws on which the human rights practices of UN member states are largely based. As such, they are of great importance and have been signed by more than 150 countries to date. For each signatory state, putting international treaties and conventions into effect is in general a three-stage process. First, the treaty is signed by the country’s representative, then it is ratified by the legislature and signed into law by its head of state, and finally it is deposited into the custody of the UN Secretariat. Although Taiwan signed these two conventions in 1967, the rest of the process ran up against various obstacles and was not completed until now, 42 years later.

The first obstacle was the attitude of Taiwan’s former authoritarian government, which had deep misgivings about completing the ratification process. As with a number of other human rights-related conventions, the ink on the covenants was hardly dry before they got locked away in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ filing cabinet.

After Taiwan withdrew from the UN in 1971, the conventions were forgotten by the government and the public. Not until the 1990s were they unearthed by some civic groups, which started to push for their ratification. Although previous governments were asked to proceed with the ratification process, no results were seen in more than a decade, over which time there were three general elections.

Now the two human rights conventions have finally been approved by the legislature. There are several reasons to celebrate.

First, the ratification is a breakthrough from the previous situation, in which two successive administrations called for the conventions to be ratified but the legislature had reservations on three major clauses. Legislators also sought to modify the text regarding self-determination that features in both covenants to the effect that peoples should be able to “declare” this right rather than actually exercise it.

It should be noted that China’s legislature did not make such changes in wording when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Now Taiwan’s lawmakers have ratified the conventions without reservation — undeniably a sign of progress.

Second, and more importantly, the legislature did not just approve the conventions, but also passed a law on their implementation, clearly ruling that they will have legal effect domestically whether they are deposited with the UN or not. The enforcement law gives priority to providing funds for implementation, and gives all levels of government two years in which to review their laws, regulations and practices and to amend or reform those that do not comply with the covenants. This sets a precedent for Taiwan’s ratification of and accession to other international conventions.

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