Human Rights Day was Dec. 10 and this year it also marked the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident.
Some media commentators lamented the fact that many Taiwanese fail to recognize the importance of this key event in the history of human rights in Taiwan, or have forgotten about it entirely. At the same time, while two international human rights covenants — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — have just come into effect in Taiwan, this significant event seems to have been overshadowed by clashes over the Jingmei Human Rights and Cultural Park. What role should the human rights that those in government are promising really play in today’s Taiwan?
If human rights are really to become a deep-rooted part of Taiwan’s culture, the government needs to set an example by putting those rights into practice, and this must be part of the government’s policies and day-to-day work. Otherwise, government officials’ gestures will be seen as a means of stalling the country’s search for historical truth and genuine reconciliation, instead imposing a certain historical mindset.
In that case, the apologies that are made year after year will contribute nothing to making human rights a reality and establishing them as part of our culture. Instead, rights will become no more than moral baubles, an easy substitute for making substantial change. Human rights will gradually become ineffective and people will become numb to the whole concept, or even find it repellent.
In order for human rights to become truly embedded in a country’s society and culture, the change has to start with checks on government power. In reality, however, the government’s review of existing laws in relation to the two covenants avoids important issues, while dwelling on the trivial, as does its list of more than 200 flaws in existing legislation.
It is a typical example of policy under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government. One has to worry how determined this government really is to put human rights into effect.
The Presidential Office has announced that it intends to establish a human rights advisory committee, but in the meantime the government seems to have completely forgotten about the need to review the security measures it took during last year’s meeting between Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and his Chinese counterpart, Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) — measures that severely restricted basic human rights protected by the two covenants.
The government appears unwilling to explain what consideration is being given to human rights as it implements security measures for the Chiang-Chen talks in Taichung this week.
The first test of a country’s human rights is its government’s treatment of its own people. When a government fails to take basic human rights as its starting point when dealing with the expression of dissident opinion and with demonstrations, then however many reviews it carries out of existing laws and whatever it does to educate the public about human rights, the gestures are laughable.
Who can have faith in a government that, in its negotiations with China, brushes aside proposals for human rights protection clauses in accords and fails to make the details of negotiations public, thereby denying the legislature’s right to oversight?