Taiwan has made some significant progress over the years in human rights protection, in large part thanks to the hard work of civil society. But much more needs to be done.
The 2017 Review Meeting of the Republic of China’s Second Report under the ICCPR and ICESCR was concluded on Jan. 18, after three days of meetings between two panels of international experts, local government officials, and NGOs. The report released last Friday by the review committee outlines the areas in which Taiwan’s adherence to the two covenants are still lacking, and encourages the government to continue to take concrete steps toward adopting all of the nine core human rights treaties into its domestic law. These include agreements on the rights of migrant workers and people with disabilities, child labor, the banning of torture, and discrimination against women, among others.
The move toward human rights recognition in Taiwan began with the ratification in 1971 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, but after the Republic of China’s withdrawal from the UN that year, all attempts to rectify Taiwan’s poor human rights record ceased for nearly three decades. It wasn’t until Chen Shui-bian, the first president elected from the Democratic Progressive Party and a former human rights lawyer, assumed office in 2000 that a substantial effort was made to enshrine individual rights into law. His administration proposed a draft of a Basic Law on Human Rights in 2003, pushed for the creation of an independent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and moved gradually toward the abolition of the death penalty. Unfortunately, a majority Kuomintang (KMT) legislature and even some people within Chen’s own party were opposed to him on these measures, and besides a de facto moratorium on the death penalty from 2006, neither of his other projects came to fruition.
Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s successor, came into office on a platform of stability in cross-strait relations and a sincere belief in the power of the ROC Constitution to protect the rights and responsibilities of Taiwan’s citizens. Commitment to furthering the cause of human rights beyond this played a much less prominent role in his campaign promises than had president Chen’s. This was problematic in that it ignored the fact that the rights outlined in the Constitution he swore to uphold had been abrogated for nearly 40 years by his own party, not to mention the fact that it places the responsibility of safeguarding human rights in one sole organ of government, the Control Yuan. This is regrettably still the case today, and both the 2013 report and the report released last week mention the Control Yuan’s insufficient advancements in this area.
Nevertheless, Ma, a Harvard-trained lawyer who, probably seeing the benefit to Taiwan of emulating UN standards, moved to ratify the ICCPR and ICESCR, the two covenants that, along the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, make up the UN’s International Bill of Human Rights. In 2009, the Legislative Yuan approved the ratification, and the Taiwanese government presented this to the UN secretariat as a symbolic gesture. Since then, Taiwan has embarked on an exhaustive process of implementation and review of the guidelines provided in the documents.
That Taiwan is continually making tangible progress toward realization of international standards for human rights is laudable, not only because it is a productive and progressive way of increasing international recognition and support from both existing human rights states and from other influential non-state organizations, but also in that it presents a strong counterpoint to the cultural relativist “Asian values” argument that individual rights, a Western notion, are not applicable to the historically more communitarian Asian nations. However, problems arising from an uneven application of ICCPR and ICESCR are cause for concern and sustained scrutiny.
A major issue in dire need of change is the continued mistreatment and abuse of migrant workers. There are currently over 600,000 foreign laborers in Taiwan, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, and mostly engaged in manual labor or paraprofessional welfare work, such as caregiving. These men and women are contracted through a guest worker program that guarantees their employment and residential status, but their conditions are not stipulated in the Labor Standards Act, which excludes them from the protections afforded domestic workers. Furthermore, the arrangement bars migrant workers from freely changing employers in cases of hostile or abusive work environments, leaves the amount of working hours up to negotiation between the employee and employer, and binds them to private broker agencies that handle their placement and rack them with enormous debt. Concerns about the flaws in this system were addressed by the first review committee in 2013, but it seems that little progress beyond the relaxation of residency restrictions has been made toward the protection of migrant worker rights.
That Taiwan is continually making tangible progress toward realization of international standards for human rights is laudable, not only because it is a productive and progressive way of increasing international recognition and support from both existing human rights states and from other influential non-state organizations, but also in that it presents a strong counterpoint to the cultural relativist “Asian values” argument that individual rights, a Western notion, are not applicable to the historically more communitarian Asian nations.
Other weak points in Taiwan’s adherence to ICCPR and ICESCR that were brought up in the meetings and the final report include gender equality, perhaps highlighted most saliently by the continued illegality of adultery, a law that has a demonstrably more negative affect on women than men; the rights of indigenous peoples, notably the right to bring collective suits against cases of discrimination or theft of community property and the right to more active participation in the lawmaking process; the conditions of Taiwanese prisons, specifically overcrowding and a high rate of deaths in custody; and the protection of LGBTQI groups, their right to marriage and civil partnerships, and to adoption and reproductive technology.
Lastly, if Taiwan wants to set itself apart from other East Asian democracies in the realm of human rights, it must take more productive steps toward abolishing the death penalty. For too long, Taiwanese presidents and politicians have insisted on following public opinion on this topic, rather than working to educate their citizens about the cruel and inhuman nature of capital punishment and its ineffectiveness in deterring others from committing deadly crimes. President Ma, despite having expressed his support for gradual abolition and his appointment of an anti-death penalty activist as Minister of Justice early in his first term, U-turned quickly thereafter, lifting president Chen’s moratorium and claiming that the total removal of the death penalty from law was not feasible in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP has conveyed a similar moderate attitude toward this issue in the past, and her administration does not seem to have focused much attention to it since taking office last May. The review committee, however, strongly urged Taiwan’s government to renew its effort in discontinuing the use of execution as punishment. One can only hope that the more progressive Tsai administration heeds their recommendation.
This is not to say that Taiwan is not making significant progress; in fact the opposite is true. A lot of this can be attributed to the hard work of various NGOs and civil society groups dedicated to the advancement of social justice. Additionally, Vice President Chen Chien-jen, in his address at the conference’s opening ceremony, stated the government’s intention to finally establish an independent national human rights institution. This is a welcome initiative, in light of concerning developments in many parts of the world. Britain’s precipitous exit from the EU, the rise of nationalist and anti-immigrant groups and politicians in Europe and the U.S., the extrajudicial killings of Duterte’s death squads in the Philippines, and China’s continued persecution of dissidents both at home and abroad, further contrast the admirable strides Taiwan is taking in improving and promoting its human rights.