Ever since arriving in Taiwan, I have been pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and hospitality of its people.
However, there is one issue that leaves me feeling particularly uneasy — the fact that Taiwan retains the death penalty, despite its abolition by most other countries. Having grown up in a democratic Germany that respects human rights, I would like to make what I believe is an important historical and legal argument against the death penalty.
The argument arises from the horrible experience of Adolf Hitler’s regime. While this terrible regime inflicted horrendous suffering on the people of numerous countries, it also imposed injustice on many Germans, particularly Jews, of course, but also many others, including political opponents.
The Hitler regime used the death penalty as a political weapon to silence dissent, creating a situation where a person could be executed for complaining about the war or telling the wrong joke. After the war, the Allied forces asked German legal experts to write a new constitution for a democratic Germany and the abolition of capital punishment was the natural consequence of having experienced how easily the death penalty can be used for terror and suppression.
Abolishing the death penalty safeguards human rights because it ensures a government can claim no legal justification for taking a life. However carefully the death penalty is enforced, there always exists the possibility of abuse or error: planted evidence, bad lawyers and wrongful convictions leading to the execution of innocents or those deemed dangerous or inconvenient.
Our inalienable right to life should never be subject to opinion polls, just as the right to a fair trial should never be replaced by a lynch mob. Public opinion wavers and is therefore a poor guide on fundamental issues such as human rights. Indeed, one of the reasons inalienable human rights exist is to protect citizens from the ebb and flow of public opinion, changing governments and concepts of justice.
The state should hold itself to a higher moral standard than the criminals it incarcerates, especially those who commit the most heinous crimes.
Only by adhering to the highest principles can the state claim the right to judge its citizens, because only then can it reasonably claim a higher moral authority than individual citizens, who are easily swayed by the latest media reports and opinion polls. As the political philosopher Michael Sandel recently argued, “you might as well say that throwing Christians to the lions was a good idea because there were more spectators getting pleasure from the spectacle than there were victims suffering pain.”
Emotional issues, such as revenge, have no place in legal arguments over human rights. A modern society is built on one of the truly great achievements of human history — the acceptance of universal human rights.
Recent assertions by Minister of Justice Tseng Yung-fu (曾勇夫) that enforcing capital punishment would not violate UN human rights conventions are not just wrong, they reflect an attitude that is both dangerous and detrimental to the building of a truly democratic Taiwan.
Abolishing the death penalty would reflect well on Taiwan. It would also give Taiwan moral high ground over China where, in the words of Amnesty International, “capital punishment [was] applied extensively to send political messages, to silence opponents or to promote political agendas,” just as it was in Hitler’s Germany. That must never again happen in Taiwan.
Bruno Walther is a visiting assistant professor of environmental science at Taipei Medical University’s College of Public Health and Nutrition.
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