Two years ago, we visited Taiwan and were privileged to meet with the then-newly elected Democratic Progressive Party government of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
Our visit then came roughly six months after the execution of 23-year-old Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) in May 2016 under the previous administration. We met with new government officials who were in favor of abolition of the death penalty and found that government policy recognised abolition to be the ultimate goal.
We left optimistic that Taiwan would sustain progress toward abolition and that the government would steadfastly maintain a moratorium on executions.
Needless to say, we were surprised, and disappointed, to hear of the execution, by a shot through the heart from behind, of Lee Hung-chi (李宏基) on Aug. 31. This was the first execution carried out during this administration. We very much hope it will be the only one.
We are not alone in our discomfort: Taiwanese human rights groups have joined international condemnation of the execution.
Many commentators have lamented the negative consequences the execution will have for Taiwan’s efforts to build stronger relationships with other countries.
Indeed, it came at a time when Taiwan’s international reputation and standing among developed economies — including with regard to its human rights record — has been at what many consider to be a high. This execution puts it all at risk.
In 2009 Taiwan took the progressive step of incorporating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a matter of domestic law, thereby voluntarily agreeing to conform to its human rights standards and objectives, not least of which includes the ultimate abolition of the death penalty.
In this and other progressive steps taken by the government over the past decade, Taiwan has recognized the benefits of adhering to international standards and distinguished itself as an emerging model for democracy and human rights in the region.
Indeed, in his statement about Lee’s execution, Minister of Justice Tsai Ching-hsiang (蔡清祥) maintained that abolishing the death penalty remains a long-term goal.
We worry that in lifting the moratorium and carrying out an execution, Taiwan has taken a huge step backward, putting its international reputation at risk.
In breaking from its sustained moratorium against executions, we fear the government also risks undermining its responsibility to its public. We recognize that this idea might, at first thought, seem strange, given that public opinion is often cited as the reason Taiwan cannot progress toward abolition.
However, this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of apparent public support for the death penalty.
First, the simple for or against questions that form the basis of many opinion polls overlook important nuances, like how strongly the public actually feels about the issue, whether it would accept abolition, and how apparent support would withstand being confronted with the brutal realities of the punishment.
Moreover, perceptions of public opinion cannot lead the debate on the death penalty or justify departure from human rights commitments. Political leadership is the key and it is this leadership — not organic shifts in public opinion — that bring an end to capital punishment.
The global experience shows that support for capital punishment dwindles after abolition as the punishment comes to be regarded as outdated.
Furthermore, there are the many unanswered questions about Lee’s case that make it sit so uncomfortably with a commitment to abolition, including that his original sentence of life imprisonment was increased to death on appeal, the lingering and serious concerns as to Lee’s mental health and his apparent unwillingness to appeal or seek clemency.
The issues specific to Lee’s case simply compound the general issues with the death penalty well understood by abolitionist governments and advocates around the world. It has repeatedly been made clear that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime. Moreover, wrongful convictions and executions remain a problem wherever the death penalty still exists — including in Taiwan.
Indeed, just one day before Lee’s execution, the High Court awarded a record settlement to a wrongfully convicted former death row prisoner who had spent more than a than a decade in prison.
We know the government takes its most solemn responsibility, to protect its citizens, just as seriously as every other like-minded democracy does. Yet it still maintains laws that put innocent lives at risk. So while we appreciate that the justice system allows for the correction of error, we cannot help but note the contradiction between accepting that a man was almost wrongfully executed and the next day carrying out an execution.
We return to Taiwan today and again have the privilege of meeting with members of the government and civic society.
Despite our disappointment over the government’s decision to execute Lee, we are conscious of Taiwan’s progress in other areas of human rights and remain optimistic that Taiwan will ultimately become a beacon for human rights in this region, its light undimmed by cruel practice and inhumane laws.
Necessary to this is a return to a moratorium on executions, and ultimately abolition. We look forward to working together with the government to achieve this critical aim.
Keir Starmer is a board member of the London-based Death Penalty Project. Saul Lehrfreund is executive director of the Death Penalty Project.
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