Last week’s report on Taiwan’s use of capital punishment by the UK-based Death Penalty Project appears to have had a limited impact on both the political and public views on the issue. Chris Wood, who is the Director of the British Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan, openly spoke in support of the report, which roundly condemned Taiwan for continuing to implement the death penalty despite it being in contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was incorporated into Taiwanese law in 2009.
Given Wood’s role as de-facto Ambassador of the British Government to Taiwan, it is unusual for him to attend a public event which is so openly critical of his host government.
Certainly his comments were hedged in the type of diplomatic language you would expect from someone in his position.
illustration: kevin sheu
He did stress that it was for the government and people of Taiwan to make the final decision on capital punishment. He made the broad points that “the death penalty undermines human dignity and there is no conclusive evidence that it deters crime.”
But most tellingly, he noted that the British Government had expressed its “disappointment” at the five executions carried out on April 29. Disappointment is a powerful diplomatic word, whose stronger meaning is clear, and whose use in this context should not be underestimated.
And this is where the report should be seen as significant to the Taiwanese officials. The majority of nations have abolished the death penalty; only 20 percent retain it for ordinary crimes. Of these, only the USA, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan can be considered democracies.
The rest of world is steadfast in its criticism of those still using capital punishment, and the UK stance should be seen as echoing that of many overseas allies, in the EU and beyond, with whom Taiwan need to remain on friendly terms.
The government in Taipei is currently making significant diplomatic efforts for the country to be recognized by a range of international bodies. But these efforts are done no favors when Taiwan enshrines international law into its domestic legislation, and then chooses to ignore it.
Attempts to win back some recognition from the UN are undermined when the government persists in a policy which is in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the very cornerstone of the organization.
Persisting in these policies in the current political climate amounts to a considerable risk.
With Chinese policy towards its neighbors becoming increasingly hostile and the recent US Department of Defense report on China’s military concluding that their primary aim was still to deal with the Taiwan question, Taiwan may need its international friends more than ever. It is therefore playing a dangerous game in persisting with a policy so fundamentally at odds with the global consensus.
It also runs the risk of undermining economic development. For example, Taiwan’s efforts to secure trade agreements with the EU are impacted by persisting with a policy which EU Human Rights legislation outlaws. They have frequently condemned executions in Taiwan, most recently following the April executions, when the EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, made a statement noting her “regret” and calling for an immediate moratorium. It is naive to think that this viewpoint won’t impact trade negotiations as well.
The global public and government officials who handle engagement with Taiwan are aware of what happens here. It does reach the media overseas, and such actions do contribute towards their perception of Taiwan.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
The Taiwanese Government needs to look at the issue of the death penalty as part of this bigger picture, and consider whether the benefits of retaining it outweigh the risks.
Statistics indicate that the death penalty has no real impact on crime rates in Taiwan. For example, National Police Agency statistics indicate that there has been a steady decline of murders since 1996. Under the previous government, there was an unofficial moratorium on executions between 2006 and 2009. This had no discernable effect on this trend. The murder rate continued to drop from 921 in 2006, to 832 in 2009.
The Government has to shape it policies around such cold hard political realities. The recent report, and the support given to it by the British government, is indicative of the detrimental impact retaining capital punishment has on Taiwan’s global standing.
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