Tue, Oct 02, 2018 - Page 8 News List

The risk to Taiwan from executions

By Keir Starmer Saul Lehrfreund

Two years ago, we visited Taiwan and were privileged to meet with the then-newly elected Democratic Progressive Party government of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Our visit then came roughly six months after the execution of 23-year-old Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) in May 2016 under the previous administration. We met with new government officials who were in favor of abolition of the death penalty and found that government policy recognised abolition to be the ultimate goal.

We left optimistic that Taiwan would sustain progress toward abolition and that the government would steadfastly maintain a moratorium on executions.

Needless to say, we were surprised, and disappointed, to hear of the execution, by a shot through the heart from behind, of Lee Hung-chi (李宏基) on Aug. 31. This was the first execution carried out during this administration. We very much hope it will be the only one.

We are not alone in our discomfort: Taiwanese human rights groups have joined international condemnation of the execution.

Many commentators have lamented the negative consequences the execution will have for Taiwan’s efforts to build stronger relationships with other countries.

Indeed, it came at a time when Taiwan’s international reputation and standing among developed economies — including with regard to its human rights record — has been at what many consider to be a high. This execution puts it all at risk.

In 2009 Taiwan took the progressive step of incorporating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a matter of domestic law, thereby voluntarily agreeing to conform to its human rights standards and objectives, not least of which includes the ultimate abolition of the death penalty.

In this and other progressive steps taken by the government over the past decade, Taiwan has recognized the benefits of adhering to international standards and distinguished itself as an emerging model for democracy and human rights in the region.

Indeed, in his statement about Lee’s execution, Minister of Justice Tsai Ching-hsiang (蔡清祥) maintained that abolishing the death penalty remains a long-term goal.

We worry that in lifting the moratorium and carrying out an execution, Taiwan has taken a huge step backward, putting its international reputation at risk.

In breaking from its sustained moratorium against executions, we fear the government also risks undermining its responsibility to its public. We recognize that this idea might, at first thought, seem strange, given that public opinion is often cited as the reason Taiwan cannot progress toward abolition.

However, this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of apparent public support for the death penalty.

First, the simple for or against questions that form the basis of many opinion polls overlook important nuances, like how strongly the public actually feels about the issue, whether it would accept abolition, and how apparent support would withstand being confronted with the brutal realities of the punishment.

Moreover, perceptions of public opinion cannot lead the debate on the death penalty or justify departure from human rights commitments. Political leadership is the key and it is this leadership — not organic shifts in public opinion — that bring an end to capital punishment.

The global experience shows that support for capital punishment dwindles after abolition as the punishment comes to be regarded as outdated.

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