EDITORIAL: Reflecting on Human Rights Day

Sat, Dec 10, 2011 - Page 8

Today, we mark Human Rights Day to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN this year is using the day to honor the millions of people in North Africa and the Middle East who have taken to the streets throughout the year to demand their rights and to honor all defenders of human rights.

As the UN noted, “human rights bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values,” something so aptly proven with the Jasmine Revolution in a region where for decades autocrats had said they were all the protections their people needed.

Closer to home, Taiwan’s human rights record remains a mixed bag. There has been a massive improvement since 1987, but there remain concerns about freedom of the press, as a recent survey for the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy showed. Respondents to the poll last month gave Taiwan a rating of 3.03 on a scale of 5 (1 being the worst and 5 the best), a marginal improvement over last year. Respondents ranked the government’s performance in safeguarding media freedom and independence at just 3.1, down from 3.18 last year and 3.24 in 2009. Of even greater concern were the scores given to judicial independence (2.34) and fairness in trials (2.35), demonstrating a clear need for long-awaited judicial reform efforts.

The Taiwan Brain Trust was even more critical, saying in a report that Taiwan has moved backward on human rights issues under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, citing the government’s suppression of protesters during a visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) in November 2008.

One commentator on the report said Taiwan’s human rights situation has backtracked to a level comparable to China’s. That may be a bit harsh, but it does raise concerns about Ma’s headlong rush to push greater cross-strait ties and relations. There are many areas where China lags far behind Taiwan and its legal system is one of them, as many Taiwanese businesspeople have found out to their dismay.

While the government has for years pushed common languages and cultural traditions as reasons why this nation can serve as a stepping stone to doing business in China — and many Taiwanese have jumped at that chance — they have all ignored that lack of legal protections in China they take for granted at home, such as a system that pays more than lip service to the rule of law.

Chang Chiu-lin (張九麟) found out the hard way what happens when a Taiwanese businessperson gets caught up in the Kafkaesque nightmare that is China’s legal system when he ran afoul of a Chinese associate in 2009 and told his story this week about his seven months in an Anhui prison on a fraud conviction.

Australian businessman Matthew Ng (吳植輝) was jailed on Tuesday for 13 years on bribery and embezzlement charges because his company allegedly ran up against one owned by the Guangzhou City Government. His family and lawyer weren’t informed ahead of time that a verdict would be handed down this week — perfectly legal under China’s opaque system.

The harshness of China’s authoritarian system was also spotlighted this week with the brief release on the Internet of leaked footage of a security operation in Tibet. A 100-person paramilitary squad, with dogs and an armored personnel carrier, raided a village overnight and arrested several people in 2008, apparently for the main crime of being Tibetan. The overwhelming force used against sleeping Tibetans seemed far out of proportion to any “security threat” their Chinese overlords might claim they represent.

So on this Human Rights Day, we should give thanks to all those brave souls who have sacrificed their lives and their freedom over the past decades — and this year — in the pursuit of democracy and human rights for all. And we should give extra thanks that we don’t live under Chinese rule.