Taiwan’s human rights in jeopardy

By Herbert Hanreich  / 

Sun, Dec 09, 2012 - Page 8

Tomorrow the UN, together with many countries around the world, will celebrate Human Rights Day, commemorating the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948.

Each year, this day is dedicated to one specific issue related to one or several of the thirty articles in this declaration, which include, among others, the right to life (Article 3) and the right to equal treatment by state authorities regardless of one’s gender, race, religion, political affiliation, etc (Article 2). They also include civic rights such as the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19) or the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (Article 20).

This year’s Human Rights Day focuses on the rights of all people “to make their voices heard in public life and be included in political decisionmaking.”

The UN’s official Human Rights Day 2012 Web site especially mentions political movements in which people, on the basis of rights expressed in articles 19 and 20 of the declaration, stood up against governments which inflicted political and social injustices on them by oppressing dissenting opinions.

One may or may not agree with the specific goals of public protesters. However, as a democrat, one cannot disagree that those people have the right to express their political opinion in public and to organize peaceful rallies where like-minded people may join them to express their social and political demands.

Such rights have become an important feature of modern democracies; they stipulate the rights of the individual vis-a-vis the various institutions of political power. Modern minds consider the state guaranteeing and protecting public protests against itself the most mature form of democratic practice. The German constitution of 1949 is such a paradigmatic example.

Taiwan, a democratic country in its political structure, still struggles with the undemocratic mindsets of some influential people. It seems that essential ingredients of democratic thought have not arrived yet in the minds of some of the country’s top political executives.

What we have been witnessing in Taiwan in the past few days is the unfolding of, well, not really a tragedy, but rather a political farce, written by incompetent politicians with undemocratic mindsets who mistake the function of their job with the imposition of their personal preferences and values on people under their influence.

A few days ago the Ministry of Education sent an e-mail to 37 university administrations asking them to investigate students who were involved in protests against the government’s political move to legalize the gradual monopolization of Taiwanese media.

In this e-mail, the ministry asked universities to show “concern” for the students’ health, since the demonstrations took place in cold and rainy weather.

One might think it a very touching story of caring politicians, but that is hard to believe.

Given that Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) apologized for the e-mail (though not really “heartfeltly”), promised to ponder “with empathy toward the students” over different ways of expressing concern in the future and initiated a review of university regulations that — I am not making this up — still make it a punishable demeanor for students to participate in protest rallies, it is clearly indicated that other “concerns” were in place, despite, as he later commented the e-mail in question, his “good” and “heartfelt” intentions.

When reading this, one cannot help but sympathize (or should we say, empathize?) with a student leader’s remarks about the minister accusing him of being incompetent, hypocritical and making statements “full of lies,” because it is outrageous for a top official to instigate institutions under his supervision to investigate students involved in perfectly legal, but politically unwelcome public actions on behalf of his personal “concerns.”

However, there is more than personal incompetence at stake: There is also a local cultural component present which poisons interactions among people, disfavoring those who are on the “wrong” side of the communication.

The logic behind the patronizing attitude demonstrated by Chiang is still prevailing in Taiwan: People in the upper ranks of hierarchies are not only in charge of the functions that come with their positions, but also of the private lives of individuals under their guidance.

The illegal imposition of long and unpaid working hours on employees is just another case in this aspect.

Human rights favor values which are different: They promote subjective rights of individuals to live their lives along their own personal and moral choices and opinions and, at the same time, insist on national legislation to legally guarantee equal rights and fair opportunities for all to do so.

They are grounded in the historical experience that the imposition of forms of life of the powerful on those subjected to their power fails humanity.

A human rights inspired politician must therefore seek to promote moral norms based on individual freedom by providing the legal space necessary for individuals to develop.

Human rights define this legal space as a public one, whereas national laws specify it by restricting individual freedom in order to enable equal individual freedom for all.

National politics must seek to protect individual freedom from politically, culturally or socially motivated impositions of standardized lifestyles that often apply soft (and sometimes not so soft) power on them under the hypocritical cover of peace and harmony, especially as imagined by the privileged who pursue their own agenda.

Modern life clashes with old-fashioned traditions that have difficulties accepting such a separation of the legal sphere and individual life.

The Confucian tradition is one such old-fashioned culture which, despite some undeniably positive social elements, cements hierarchies, discourages individuality, and finally undermines democracy and human rights. There is a reason why China promotes Confucian values.

The ministry’s hypocritical health concern is very Confucian, acting as if the imposition of certain (ridiculous) ideals of life (“Don’t protest in cold weather”) at the cost of civic rights are morally acceptable in Taiwan.

This is yet another example of how numb forms of regional cultural practices contradict modern ideas of universal human rights.

There is still a long way to go to complement — and sometimes correct — certain cultural practices with ideas that ensure the rights of free individuals.

The student’s action of openly stating his opinions directly in the face of the minister is an encouraging sign that the country is on the right way to fully implementing the ideas of human rights not only in legal texts, but also in the minds of the people.

If the self-proclaimed champion of human rights in Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), is serious about his mission, then one would expect him to sack his minister of education, whose administration pursues an educational policy that sooner or later will kill the brain of the last remaining person with a mind of their own in Taiwan.

Herbert Hanreich is an assistant professor at I-Shou University in Greater Kaohsiung.