Progressing slowly on human rights

By Peter Huang 黃文雄  / 

Thu, Jan 04, 2001 - Page 8

My assignment today is to present an overview of Taiwan's human rights conditions as they have evolved over the post-war years, and to do so in 20 minutes. This is certainly a tall order. It is my view that getting an idea of the paradoxical nature of Taiwan's human rights conditions is crucial, for it not only reveals the particular paths we have followed but it may also be our best guide as to how we should proceed in future.

I have chosen to concentrate on the post-war years for intellectual as well as pragmatic reasons. As is widely known, it was after World War II that the universalization of human rights reached a most important watershed. It was also in the early years of this period that Taiwan's history took a fateful turn. A colonial power, Japan, departed in 1945 and into its place stepped a semi-Leninist, semi-colonial rightwing regime in the form of General Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) one-party dictatorship. Ironically, back in those years the Chiang regime was not merely a part of the UN, but a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The human rights implications of this turn of events were clear almost from the very beginning. In February 1947, the year before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) came into existence, the KMT tyranny touched off an island-wide uprising. By the time the UDHR made its appearance, thousands in Taiwan had already been massacred, and an ensuing "clean-up" operation in the countryside (清鄉) was building up into another period of state terrorism. This latter period, reachings its peak in 1955, is now commonly known as the era of the "White Terror" (白色恐怖). During it, a few thousand more were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were arrested and otherwise terrorized.

There were two things at once terrifying and chillingly ironic about this long period of state terrorism. First, the KMT not only helped pass the UDHR but also duly signed, ratified, and deposited the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The KMT regime even hypocritically produced a domestic version of the Genocide Convention, which entered into Taiwan law in 1953 just when the "White Terror" was building up to a peak. Secondly, on a lesser scale but no less effective for the regime's purposes, this state terrorism continued well into the early-90s. The current national compensation law for victims of "improper trials" covers those victimized during that period as well.

The effects of this long period of state violations of human rights on Taiwan's society was to demolish whatever budding ideas of rights and freedoms came with modernization and somehow also survived Japan's harsh colonial rule. In the earlier days, a Taiwanese communist's worst fate was imprisonment. Later it became death or some other horrific fate.

In 1930, activists of the People's Party of Taiwan were able to get a League of Nations mission to come and investigate the colonial government's opium policy, making good use of the rivalry between imperial forces. Later, in the context of the Cold War, nothing like this was remotely conceivable. The West simply turned a blind eye: Taiwan was one of its anti-communist frontline states. The chilling result was that, until about a decade ago, professors of constitutional law did their best to skirt the issue of human rights. Under such conditions, there was little room for a human rights culture or tradition to grow.

Here it's important to note that many countries share a history similar to Taiwan's, but there were conditions peculiar to Taiwan, and it is Taiwan's peculiarities that I wish to stress today. Two peculiarities are particularly worth noting, one having to do with international and the other domestic situations. Internationally, when Taiwan was expelled from the UN in 1971, it also became severed from the international human rights regime. The timing, 1971, was critical. It was in the mid-70s that two important UN human rights covenants took effect and related institutional and operational mechanisms came into place. Yet Taiwan was no longer with the UN. By 1971, Taiwan had signed and ratified seven human rights conventions, including the two covenants, but these were merely international public-relations exercises seeking to polish the image of Taiwan, then known as "Free China." After the execution of these conventions, all the papers were duly locked away in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the ink was dry. In fact, Taiwan will not have a published compilation of international human rights instruments until an NGO-compiled volume appears next month, although the first UN compilation came out in 1966 and Chinese was, then as now, one of the major languages officially used by the UN.

Taiwan has been severed from the international human rights regime for the past 30 years. What might have happened had Taiwan stayed in? We shall soon see that this is by no means idle speculation. Taiwan's government would have needed enough officials sufficiently knowledgeable about human rights to know how to vote at the annual conferences in Geneva and at the General Assembly of the UN. Right now it has none.

Second, Taiwan's government and NGOs would have needed to take part in a large number of UN conferences and projects relating to human rights. Right now it is totally excluded, except for a few NGOs attached to accredited international groups.

Third,Taiwan would have had a UN depository. Right now Taiwan's largest seven libraries contain a grand total of 162 items of information in Chinese relating to human rights.

Fourth, Taiwan would have had to accede to at least the major conventions and submit the required national reports. So far it has never had to.

Fifth, to do this, universities would most likely have had to step in to help. Right now less than half a dozen courses are offered at over 100 universities and colleges.

Sixth,Taiwan's government would have had to have human rights policies of sorts. Until last May, it had none.

The cataloguing could go on.

Now, suppose we try to imagine not only counterfactuals like these but also their combined impacts over 30 years on Taiwan's human rights awareness and practice. What a great and irreplaceable loss they would translate into!

I believe it is hard to escape two conclusions from this exercise. First,Taiwan has a very poor infrastructure for advancing rights. Second, its severance from the international human rights regime has played a large part in this lack of a more adequate infrastructure, one in proportion to its economic strength and standard of education. It would also be hard, I think, to imagine a better negative argument for the necessity of an international regime for advancing rights in individual countries.

This is the first of the two peculiarities I mentioned earlier.

Now the second, the one to do with domestic evolution. Taiwan has made undeniable progress in human rights since our liberalization and democratization began about a decade and a half ago. This progress has taken mainly two forms.

First, personal, political and certain civil rights such as freedoms of speech and association are now relatively secure.

These might be called "beachhead rights" because they helped open up space for Taiwan's civil society to emerge from severe state domination in the pre-democratization period. Over the last decade, civil organizations have made possible a second cluster of gains beyond "beachhead rights." The gains are uneven and scattered, reflecting the varying strengths of the civil movements; improvements in legal rights (but not the badly needed structural reform of the judicial system), in welfare rights (we have a national health insurance scheme, but no unemployment insurance or pension scheme worthy of the names), womens' rights (but workers rights fall far behind). I shan't go on. It appears that Taiwan has settled down quickly, too quickly one might say, into the politics and business as usual one wouldn't expect from a society so soon after its transition to democracy.

Although we will have to oversimplify, there is an explanation for this overall pattern. Taiwan was supposed to have gone through a "Quiet Revolution." In fact, it was neither quiet nor a revolution. The ruling party, the KMT, was in power until seven months ago. What happened was that, caught in the most recent worldwide wave of democratization and under popular pressure in the mid-80s, it had to make concessions in order to stay in power. The concessions mainly took the form of opening up the political process, hence the unfreezing of those "beachhead rights." But everything else has had to be struggled for bit by bit. At least as far as human rights are concerned, this is not a healthy situation. To see this, we need only remind ourselves of the case of South Africa, of how much that country's National Action Plan Steering Committee has achieved in building an infrastructure for securing and advancing human rights. The comparison is enlightening because Taiwan enjoys advantages over South Africa in terms of economic and educational standards.

Even from a survey as brief as this one, three conclusions are clear. First, the near-impossibility of building up a human rights culture and tradition in Taiwan's pre-democratization period made for the lack of a strong, independent, internal drive to advance these rights in Taiwan. Second, this lack combined with Taiwan's international isolation led to an inadequate infrastructure for advancing rights, either by international standards or in proportion to Taiwan's other achievements. And third, if Taiwan is to achieve greater advancement of human rights either for itself or for the world, it cannot continue to rely on bit-by-bit accretion.

Seen in this light, I believe that the new administration should be applauded for beginning to address the problems by proposing to establish a national human rights commission, to incorporate the International Bill of Human Rights into a domestic bill of rights, and to build up and intensify international human rights exchanges. I need only to point out that this is but a beginning. Something more comprehensive, such as a national action plan is still needed. For this, and for the purpose of putting plans into daily practice, encouragement and assistance from the international human rights community, such as this conference exemplifies, will be both crucial and welcome.

I don't know whether my survey succeeds in conveying and diagnosing what I have called the paradoxical nature of Taiwan's human rights conditions. Indeed, no 20-minute survey can escape its own paradoxical elements. I can only hope that my brief talk is not entirely useless for our discussions over the next few days. I look forward to the discussions, and I thank you all.

Peter Huang is a board member and former chairman of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights. This article is the speech he presented at the International Conference on National Human Rights Commissions: Promoting and Protecting Human Rights.