This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Ministry of Justice seems intent on carrying through with its forum on the National Human Rights Plan of Action (國家人權行動計畫).
Democracy and human rights have advanced by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years, and our freedoms and rights have gradually come to be respected by the government and protected by the law. However, the Nov. 24 referendums are evidence of the weak foundations of human rights in Taiwan — democracy without human rights is nothing less than the tyranny of the majority.
At the same time, due to the difficulties involved in verifying fragmentary information transferred between groups and the accompanying emotions, it is not difficult for organizations with large resources to use propaganda tactics to manipulate democracy.
Compared with community mobilization, the government’s attempts to explain its positions were weak and indirect, which led to the severe blow to gender equality and LGBT rights, as well as a strengthened position of conservative forces opposed to human rights.
Some legislators have relied on populist rhetoric to question the Council of Grand Justices’ constitutional interpretation, in effect challenging the fundamental underpinnings of a country based on the rule of law.
A single referendum has laid bare a weakness of democratic societies for all to see. Local human rights advances have been causing unease in China and Beijing is certain to increase its mobilization efforts to destroy them in future elections.
The government was already preparing the action plan, but with these new challenges, it is even more urgent that it gets the ball rolling.
Covenants Watch has suggested that the government include the following three items in the action plan:
First, a human rights agency. In addition to quickly setting up a national human rights commission independent of the government to monitor the incumbent administration, a dedicated human rights organ should also be set up within the Executive Yuan.
Covenants Watch has for many years said that the Executive Yuan must set up a human rights office to increase its human rights expertise and master its human rights skills.
The office could help ministries and departments solicit views from different sectors of society, and plan and implement the rights action plan.
It is difficult to understand why the government cannot provide even the resources required for an office of a few dozen people, when conservative forces are ready to invest NT$100 million (US$3.24 million) at the drop of a hat.
Second, promotion of human rights. Taiwanese enjoy freedom and human rights, but they often ignore the importance of these values and, as a result, do not protect them. Human rights education is a construction of our awareness through participation, and it requires an understanding of the history of our forebears who fought for these rights and of the human rights situation at the international level.
When it comes to Chinese human rights violations in particular, there should be a Chinese–English bilingual database that should be open to other nations as a reference and a warning. The government should also study what rights the public thinks are important and what doubts it has to be able to provide human rights training in schools, to civil servants and to judges.
Third, human rights protection. This consists of three parts:
First, there is the elimination of discrimination based on gender, race, physical or mental abilities. The government has an obligation to fight discrimination, including by amending discriminatory laws, promoting equality, banning discrimination and hate speech, and eliminating prejudice.
Then there is the issue of business and human rights. Businesses pursue economic development, while the government has a responsibility to focus on human rights. One example of how the government is ignoring this issue was its decision to allow Asia Cement to continue mining operations in Hualien County based on the Mining Act (礦業法), while ignoring the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act (原住民族基本法).
Other issues, such as forced removal of residents due to urban renewal projects or land expropriation, have also angered the public. Financiers making international investments as part of the New Southbound Policy should consider the protection of the rights of disadvantaged groups, as well as environmental protection in recipient countries.
The third part involves socioeconomic rights. The world is facing increasingly severe wealth inequality, and many communities facing problems as a result need government-provided training, assistance to start businesses and social welfare.
Because taxation is insufficient, social services are running out of resources, and there is a clear shortage of personnel to coach disadvantaged young people, or help older or physically disabled people live an independent life in their communities, and in the judiciary and prisons.
The rights closest to the public are the rights to work, accommodation, an appropriate standard of living and social security. If these rights disappear, it is only natural that people start doubting the value of human rights. In addition to reviewing the tax system, the government should also pay attention to the development of other social and economic issues.
The direct aim of the action plan is to guarantee that all enjoy equal respect and freedom. Doing this also builds a shared community and identity.
The government should clamp down on fake news to protect the nation’s well-functioning democracy, but it is only by improving society’s health that we will be able to truly protect and maintain our democracy.
Huang Song-lih is convener of Covenants Watch.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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