A challenging year for human rights

By Yang Tsung-li 楊宗澧  / 

Sat, Dec 18, 2010 - Page 8

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.

Unfortunately, our present government seems to think that ratifying the conventions is all that is needed to make “quick strides in human rights” — and what they really mean by that is to win a reputation as a country that respects human rights.

However, the government has overlooked the more important question of how the conventions are to be implemented. During the year that has passed since the conventions came into legal effect, Covenants Watch, an umbrella group of civic organizations, has criticized the government for proceeding at a snail’s pace in the area of human rights, despite its avowed intention of making “quick strides.” Amnesty International, too, will in its next annual report assess the state of human rights in Taiwan since it adopted the two conventions. The truth is that the state still does not attach sufficient importance to human rights. Judicial rights, freedom of expression and the rights of women, immigrants, migrant workers and other groups continue to be infringed upon in ways both open and hidden.

Ever since it adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948, the UN has commemorated Dec. 10 as Human Rights Day. In 1966, the UN went a step further by adopting the two conventions that were finally ratified by Taiwan last year.

These gave more concrete expression to the ideals enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over the past year, civic groups in Taiwan have published shadow reports to monitor the government. The slow pace in implementing the two conventions makes tasks such as embracing global human rights values as part of Taiwanese society, as well as taking action and educating people at the local level, all the more urgent.

If our government is serious about promoting human rights today then it should establish an independent national human rights institution, as called for in the Paris Principles adopted by the UN in 1993. The setting up of a Human Rights Advisory Committee under the Presidential Office, in an effort to enhance the government’s human rights image, is a poor and unconvincing substitute.

Yang Tsung-li is deputy director of Amnesty International Taiwan.