In the 16th century, Francisco de Vitoria, a professor of law at the University of Salamanca, identified 15 human rights, of which this was his 10th: “Toda nacion tiene derecho a gobernarse a si misma y puede aceptar el regimen politico que quiera, aun cuando no sea el mejor,” meaning “all nations have the right to govern themselves and can accept the political regime it wants, even if it is not the best.”
In 1810, Dionisio Inca Yupanqui, a Quechua descendant of Incan King Huayna Capac and the only indigenous delegate in Cadiz for the rewriting of the Spanish constitution, remarked that “a people that oppresses another cannot be free.”
This was noticed by economists and philosophers of the mid-1800s who adapted Yupanqui’s argument after they studied the Cortes de Cadiz and Spain’s resistance to Napoleon in the Peninsular War.
It was applied to the case of Ireland to develop theories of national self-determination.
That discussion gave birth to the famous phrase: “A nation that enslaves another forges its own chains.”
The entire field of contemporary human, economic and political rights that exists today, from the individual to the state, has been built in some way on the concepts of sovereignty and self-determination.
The history of the development of the right to self-determination and its invocation, in good and bad faith, is one of reaction to empires. Between 1776 and 1919, numerous empires — including the Ottoman, Russian, Austrian/Habsburg, Qing, Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, Dutch, German, US and Japanese — competed for regional and global dominance, expanding or contracting at the expense of each other. These empires effectively ignored the self-determination of those they colonized or governed from afar.
In the case of Taiwan, the Qing Dynasty seized the Pescadores [Penghu] and occupied the western plains of Taiwan from 1683 until 1895. They were unable to extend their colonial project any further owing to fierce protection of their self-determination by indigenous communities.
The Japanese were only able to take complete control of Taiwan from these communities after decades of ethnic and cultural cleansing, genocide and policies such as kominka. The Chinese nationalists who succeeded and replaced the Japanese focused on subduing and converting non-indigenous Qing-era settlers into loyal citizens of their newly imported Republic of China (ROC)-in-exile.
For 372 years, from 1624 to 1996, indigenous and long-term settlers on the peaceful and diverse archipelago of nations, tribes and migrants that today we collectively call Taiwan faced, fought and waited out wave after wave of colonial and imperial ventures.
Flags were planted, identities declared, languages prescribed and proscribed, and blood drawn in an effort to control and direct the people of the archipelago, usually toward the interests of a state whose administrative and political center was thousands of miles away. Taiwanese were conscripted and died defending different regimes, all eventually undone by their own hubris, cruelty, ambition, greed and corruption.
About 30 years ago the dam burst. Democracy was established and, having finally won the right to choose their own leaders, a slow wave of Taiwanese identification with, and pride in, their nation washed away other more “situational” loyalties and identities, many of which had hitherto been mostly maintained at the tip of a bayonet.
Over the past three decades, as Taiwanese democracy has deepened and become institutionally and ritually embedded into the fabric of the Taiwanese political-economy and everyday lives, I type this listening to campaign trucks go by [prior to Saturday’s elections], a sense of specifically Taiwanese identity, sovereignty and right to self-determination has developed from a minority position into a common and implicitly understood norm.
Taiwanese were not bribed, brainwashed, cajoled or manipulated into regarding themselves as a separate nation. That was, arguably, always going to happen once they had ripped off the gags and removed their ankle tags. Despite considerable, brutal efforts to cut the grass, spring arrived anyway.
Today, questioning the authenticity and provenance of “Taiwanese” as a national identity is akin to watching a freed bird finally fly and accusing it of acting, provocatively, like a bird.
Taiwanese are an example of groups around the world who either exercise or should exercise sovereignty and self-determination according to international or domestic law, but are not “recognized” by the UN and other bodies requiring statehood for membership. That non-status does not preclude other nations from exercising their right to determine their own diplomatic policy regarding such states. There are no legal or institutional barriers which, for example, restrict the UK from extending and expanding its ties with Taiwan.
The UK’s policy toward Taiwan, draped in 72 years of diplomatic cobwebs, is not fit for its purpose. As the Taiwan Policy Centre outlines in its latest report: Taiwan Respected — A road map to making room for Taiwanese self-determination, it is time for the UK to implement a shift in Taiwan-UK relations that recognizes the reality of Taiwan as a nation.
The center makes nine practical recommendations for the British government to demonstrate, if not recognition, then respect for the obvious and rightful self-determination of Taiwanese. It means changing documents and removing bureaucratic barriers, and it requires discipline, fortitude and a clear sense of the principle and material justice this will deliver.
Since 1971, Taiwan has been the country that cannot be recognized. Taiwanese on the world stage have been talked over, ignored, forced to adopt spurious names, belittled, shut out, patronized, scolded and blamed for the temerity of identifying themselves as Taiwanese. The injustice of the absence of Taiwan and Taiwanese on the world stage, and threats to their independence, freedom and democracy, are now unavoidably obvious. Under international law, Taiwan (ROC) has the right to the self-determination it exercises as a sovereign nation.
Part of the process of correcting an injustice is to make heard the voices of those who are, or have been, shut out.
However, those voices need visibility and equity.
To provide visibility is to place a ladder so it can be climbed to the platform where you sit. Equity is making permanent room for them to sit there.
Hopefully, the report, which can be found at https://taiwanpolicycentre.com/wp-content/uploads/Taiwan-Respected-221027.pdf, will move the dial on these aims as it makes the case for Taiwan’s self-determination and a road map for the first steps the British government can consider to deliver for Taiwan and Taiwanese long overdue visibility and equity on the international stage.
Ben Goren is director of communications for the Taiwan Policy Centre and a long-term resident of Taiwan.
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