Wed, Dec 09, 2009 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL : Are human rights still on the agenda?

As the world celebrates International Human Rights Day tomorrow, Taiwan will also be presented with an opportunity to reflect on its progress, or lack thereof, in safeguarding human rights over the past year.

Recent events are likely to cast a pall on Taiwan’s image. Just last week, Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Deputy Secretary-General Maa Shaw-chang (馬紹章) announced that the Taichung City Government would designate a 30,000-ping (nearly 100,000m²) “protest zone,” or “opinion plaza,” so that protesters could make their voices heard during the fourth round of negotiations between SEF Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and his Chinese counterpart Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) later this month.

Although Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) put the brakes on what he called a “premature” idea, adding that it would be unconstitutional to deprive people of their right to assemble outside a designated area, Taiwan’s international image as a country that, unlike China, honors freedom of speech, was nevertheless tainted.

Several international media organizations have expressed interest in sending crews to cover the ­Taichung talks, not so much for the talks themselves, but rather over expectations that the “orderly protests” might get out of hand.

And it gets worse.

As the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper, the Liberty Times wrote yesterday, the Taichung City Police Bureau has reportedly attempted to “persuade” shops around the talks’ hotel venue to close during the meeting over concerns of possible riots in the area.

It is understandable that law enforcement officers would seek to maintain social order. But the assumption that protesters will be violent highlights a bias against dissent and reveals an authoritarian mindset that stigmatizes protesters regardless of their cause or behavior.

No wonder the failure to revise the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法) continues to top the list of the public’s 10 main concerns about human rights this year, as a survey by the Taiwan Associations for Human Rights has shown.

Taiwan may have completed its transition from the “hard” authoritarianism left behind by dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to a “softer” authoritarian rule initiated by his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) in the 1980s, but to this day, many people believe that an authoritarian reflex lingers among government and police officers, which has become the biggest hurdle to a legislative revision of the Act.

It is also inexcusable that the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), which has deeply immersed itself in cementing ties with China, has failed to take people’s rights to assemble with equal urgency.

Whether full engagement with China will bring economic benefits to the nation’s export-oriented economy remains to be seen. But in every contact with China, Taiwan can — and should — use the opportunity to fulfill its international obligations by playing a bigger role in encouraging Beijing to democratize and respect human rights.

By failing to do so and focusing solely on improving its economy — which seems to be the Ma administration’s favored approach — Taiwan will fail in its responsibilities as a stakeholder in the international community.

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