Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 4 News List

Balancing human rights and security

Eric Metcalfe is one of four human rights specialists from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) who visited Taiwan this week. The team was invited by the Cabinet-level Research, Development and Evaluation Commission to offer opinions on a draft human rights law. 'Taipei Times' staff reporter Ko Shu-ling talked with Metcalfe, a lawyer and director of human rights policy at Justice, the British Chapter of the ICJ, to learn of his thinking on human rights, terrorism, torture, immigration and asylum.


Eric Metcalfe


Taipei Times: Since September 11, governments around the world have been engaged in tackling terrorism, including Taiwan. The Cabinet has approved a draft anti-terrorism law, which would impose the death penalty on those convicted of engaging in acts of terrorism occasioning death. Do you think this contradicts the draft human rights law, which would seek to abolish the death penalty?

Metcalfe: If you're serious about protecting human rights, then you have to take very seriously the abolition of the death penalty -- and that's complete abolition.

That the draft human rights law is looking at a gradual, progressive abolition of the death penalty is very welcome. And to that extent, introducing the abolition of the death penalty to the new piece of legislation would appear to be a great advance.

In particular, the Taiwan government has to ask how much a deterrent the death penalty is in such cases. It is absolutely right to take terrorism seriously as a threat, but it's also important to strike a balance between protecting human life and protecting human rights. Ultimately, the basis of one is the basis of the other.

The government must take care in putting forward anti-terrorism legislation and not undermine the cause of protecting human rights.

For instance, the UK has a very strong anti-terrorism framework but doesn't have the death penalty. None of the European countries has anti-terrorism legislation that has the death penalty either. Certainly, the UK is a major terrorism target but even so the UK doesn't accept that it's necessary to bring in the death penalty. So it's questionable whether Taiwan, if it's not as much a terrorism target as the UK, would need the death penalty.

Taipei Times: According to the Cabinet, getting rid of the death penalty is a long-term goal, which has to be brought about slowly and cautiously to gain public acceptance. But anti-terrorism legislation is needed now and it is arguable that this most serious of crimes should carry the most serious of penalties on the books. This raises two questions: Does Taiwan really need anti-terrorism legislation? And if so, should it invoke the death penalty?

Metcalfe: It's not for me to say whether Taiwan needs anti-terrorism legislation. It's sensible to leave it to the government to judge whether there's such a need for anti-terrorism legislation, although it'd also be interesting to see what human rights organizations here in Taiwan have to say about the need.

However, even if anti-terrorism legislation is necessary, I don't see the need for a death penalty and there are reasons for that.

One is simply the moral case against the death penalty, which is that it's wrong to kill people unless it's absolutely necessary. If you can imprison someone for the rest of his life for the most serious offense, then it can't be said that it's strictly necessary.

Also, there's always a risk of a miscarriage of justice. In the UK over the past 15 years, we've seen a series of cases of miscarriages of justice. The UK would like to think that it has the best system of justice in the world. If the UK can produce miscarriages of justice, it's possible that it might result one day in a wrongful execution.

The problem with miscarriages of justice is if you send people into prison and you find out later that they're innocent, you can give them that time back by compensating them financially. But if you apply the death penalty on miscarriages of justice, there's no bringing them back. There's a very serious risk of error, which is a very significant factor.

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