Free-speech limits on foreigners needs review

By Michael Danielsen  / 

Sun, Sep 15, 2013 - Page 8

Freedom to demonstrate and support like-minded people is a fundamental right among democratic nations. It is therefore surprising that this right is not fully extended to foreign visitors to Taiwan. Most foreigners seem unaware that they can run into trouble if they participate in legal and peaceful demonstrations during their visit.

The Immigration Act (出入國及移民法) says that foreigners are not allowed to participate in an activity that is different from the purpose of the visit or residence of the person in question. However, there is no up-to-date list of permissible activities. Consequently, foreigners are forced to make their own — perhaps erroneous — judgments of what is allowed. Is a tourist allowed to participate in a parade with a sign advocating gay marriage? Perhaps the case could be made that this would violate the purpose of the visit, unless the parade is not considered to be a protest.

The law restricting foreigner involvement is unexpected because this is a democratic country, but more so because the law appears to violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights that Taiwan has ratified and which took effect on Dec. 10, 2009. The covenant stipulates that foreigners within the jurisdiction of a state enjoy the same rights as nationals, with only limited exceptions. The right to assembly is not among these exceptions.

The law should therefore be changed to line up with the covenant so that foreigners have their rights protected. Still this would have exceptions; they would not have the right to vote. Every lawful activity should be open to all, unless it is specially excluded to protect national interests. However, under the current rules, foreigners are better off staying away from protests and politics because there are no clear guidelines for what they can and cannot do.

It is discouraging to see that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government appears reluctant to do the right thing. This adds to the widely held view that the nation’s democratic development is on the wrong path.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party is currently pushing the KMT to allow foreigners on short stays to join demonstrations. However, the KMT appears reluctant. It will only consider a relaxation for nonpolitical assemblies and will not allow participation during election periods.

The KMT prefers to open up an array of arbitrary policies and to provoke a debate over the definition of nonpolitical assemblies. Would participation in a homosexual pride parade be considered a nonpolitical activity? Would it depend on how a person acts in the parade?

A change in the law is warranted. Recently, a young European was banned from entering Taiwan for three years because authorities claimed that he participated in an activity that was different from the purpose of his residence. They claimed that he participated in a peaceful antinuclear demonstration on June 11, 2011, in Greater Tainan. He said that he did not participate. After a long struggle with the help of lawyers, the Ministry of the Interior finally admitted that it treated him unjustly when it denied him an entry visa.

He has now been cleared of any wrongdoing.

One could argue that the legal system is working, but his case highlights the democratic problem with the act’s general prohibition of participation in “activities different from the purposes of their visits or residence.”

Of course national affairs are first and foremost the affairs of Taiwanese. However, it should be permissible for democratically-minded people to show their support for like-minded people, regardless of nationality.

Taiwan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Consequently, Taiwan has an obligation to change its laws accordingly.

Michael Danielsen is the chairman of Taiwan Corner.