Taiwan is regularly recognized as the strongest democracy in Asia, a vibrant, pluralist society that holds human rights as foundational to its identity. That is, until you consider the 38 Taiwanese prisoners awaiting execution. The state’s cold-blooded killing of its own citizens is incongruous with democracy and human rights. Taiwan must join the 108 nations that have completely abolished the death penalty.
Capital punishment has been a feature of human civilization since the beginning of recorded history, but it has no place in a modern, liberal democracy such as Taiwan. The practice was formally introduced by Japanese colonizers in 1895, and has been continued by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government and into the democratic era, surviving the transfer of power to the Democratic Progressive Party government.
During the 38 years of martial law, the KMT used the death penalty as a tool of oppression to control the Taiwanese population who agitated for self-rule and basic freedoms. Ironically, upon the lifting of martial law, executions increased exponentially, peaking at 78 in 1990, and decreasing slowly. This dramatic increase reflects the violent flexing of an authoritarian system in its death throes, attempting to control a society already on the path to democracy.
“There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than long-term imprisonment,” is the clear message from the American Civil Liberties Union. The same was found by criminologist Ezzat Fattah’s seminal 1972 longitudinal study, which concluded that the death penalty had no deterrent effect. The UN also determined in 1988 and 1996 that “research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment, and such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming.” The evidence is clear: It does not work.
Taiwan is no different, and legislators know that. When asked what they believe would reduce violent crimes, “more executions” was the least frequently selected option. It is time that the death penalty is abolished. Not only is it ineffective at reducing crime, but it also too often leads to the deaths of undeserving or innocent people.
All justice systems are flawed. There are seven cases in which death sentences were handed down to individuals who were later exonerated by the government, one of whom, Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶), was executed before his eventual exoneration. The other six lost decades of freedom, and endured torturous and inhumane conditions awaiting the final bullet in the brain. Civil rights groups believe six more innocent people have been wrongly sentenced to death, half having already been executed, and the other half on death row.
Damningly, of the 62 judgements involving the death penalty between 2006 and 2015, 10 did not include evidence that established guilt, 32 judgements failed to establish premeditation. In 28 cases, criminal intent was asserted without supporting evidence. The system clearly does not work to establish justice. In principle and practice, the death penalty is unacceptable. Taiwan can do better, and it needs to do better.
Despite consistent polling from the 1990s showing high support for retention, Chiu Hei-yuan (瞿海源), an honorary professor at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, found that less than half of respondents were strongly opposed to abolition, indicating that the so-called public opposition, which is often touted as the reason the penalty remains, is not a significant barrier to abolition.
A 2016 Cornell Law School report also discovered that most often public opposition decreased significantly after abolition. Political, civil, religious, and judicial advocates were required to pursue abolition, and the population would follow suit. Remarkably, an abolitionist majority among lawmakers already prevails in Taiwan.
According to research, 61 percent of Taiwanese lawmakers interviewed favored abolition, and only 39 percent favored retention, with only one legislator being “strongly in favor of retention.” To advance abolition, Taiwan needs brave leaders to acknowledge the harm wrought by capital punishment and advocate for change.
The path to abolition is a global trend, evident in the 125 nations in the UN General Assembly voting last year to adopt a resolution calling for a global moratorium with an aim toward abolition. In the same year, four countries abolished capital punishment. Already 144 of the 199 global jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Taiwan should join them, rather than continue an immoral practice among peers like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Having already signed and domesticated the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which clearly places abolition as its goal, the path is clear for Taiwan. The death penalty is an archaic weapon of oppression incompatible with a free democracy. It is unjust, ineffective, unsupported, and inhumane. It must go.
Declan Logan is an intern at the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty.
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