Last year, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) signed into law two key international human rights conventions — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — after they were ratified by the legislature. This was something civic groups in Taiwan had been urging the government to do for many years. The laws went into effect on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, last year, after an unusually short preparatory period of just eight months. This year’s Human Rights Day marked one year since the two conventions came into force in Taiwan. As part of Taiwan’s domestic law, the two conventions have considerable bearing on structural issues thrown up by the great shifts in politics, economics, culture and environmental concerns that the world had undergone.
Looking back over the past year, the words “human rights,” of which many Taiwanese feel so proud, have taken on a graver tone as they have been overshadowed by political confrontation and hate-filled language. Issues such as the death penalty debate and the White Rose Movement for judicial reform and safety for women and children reflect popular indignation and a desire for seemingly straightforward solutions, yet discussion about procedural justice is lacking and strong feelings may be redirected into hateful attacks on those who raise dissenting opinions.
There are also issues related to the direction of economic and environmental development, such as the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium, Sanying Aboriginal Community and reconstruction following Typhoon Morakot, where those calling for cultural preservation are pitted against plans for demolition and forced removal. There has also been much debate about major construction projects such as the expansion of the Central Taiwan Science Park, the planned Kuokuang Petrochemical complex and proposed “improvements” to the Suao-Hualien Highway or its replacement with a freeway. When it comes to assessing what harmful impact these projects may have on the environment, as well as other related questions, rational discussion is made difficult as the issues have become mired in political confrontation.
As the line between freedom and power becomes blurred, an atmosphere of intimidation stifles the discussion of issues of public interest. Verbal violence also pervades the virtual world of Internet forums in the form of belligerent “trolls” and “flames.” In Taiwan, the words “human rights” are being denigrated in a way never before seen. Evidently, people are divided about what “human rights” really means.
To understand these distorted perceptions, one must bear in mind that Taiwan has been shut out of international human rights organizations for a long time — ever since it withdrew from the UN in 1971. As a result, people here are quite unfamiliar with the whole human rights setup. After ratifying the two conventions, formally incorporating them into domestic law and passing a law on their enforcement, the government adopted a plan for “quick strides forward in human rights,” aimed at ensuring officials are familiar with the conventions. In reality, however, most people, including bureaucrats in both central and local government as well as ordinary members of the public, still do not have much of an idea as to what the two conventions are about.