Raising the Bar: Human-Rights Initiatives in Taiwan. (Perspectives)

By Chen, Shuibian | Harvard International Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Raising the Bar: Human-Rights Initiatives in Taiwan. (Perspectives)


Chen, Shuibian, Harvard International Review


In the March 2000 election, the Republic of China (ROC) crossed a crucial threshold. With my election as president, Taiwan experienced the first-ever party rotation in its history. In my inauguration address in May, I proposed a number of human-rights goals: to enshrine major international human-rights norms in a domestic bill of rights; to establish a National Human Rights Commission in conformity with the United Nations "Paris Principles"; and to expand and intensify exchanges and cooperation with the international human-rights community. These policies and related measures are now at various stages of planning and implementation (a progress report is included on page 28). Despite, or rather because of, Taiwan's international political isolation, the international nature of these policies and measures has attracted international curiosity, inquiries, and visits. I would like to take this opportunity to outline the conditions and considerations that have led us to this significant change in process.

Current Conditions

Taiwan's human-rights conditions have advanced considerably since its liberalization and democratization in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In the Freedom House Annual Report of 2000, Taiwan ranked with Japan as the only two "free" countries in the Asian region. The space allocated to Taiwan in the Amnesty International Annual Reports has dropped dramatically over the years. There seems to be good reason for self-congratulation, and a measure of it would be justified. However, if we examine the reports more closely and Taiwan's general level of development is taken into account, there are equally good reasons for caution and concern. Progress has primarily been concentrated in the areas of specific civil and political rights while advances in other areas of rights tend to be more uneven and scattered.

Some civil-rights improvements are clear. Disappearances and politically motivated killings have ceased, and respect for citizens' bodily integrity has advanced considerably. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are fairly secure. Legal rights, however, require greater progress, particularly in overhauling the judicial system. Despite two national conferences on judicial reform, implementation has been slow until recently.

Certain political rights are to be assumed as well, since Taiwan's elections are known to be lively. At the same time, one must not forget other aspects of political rights that, if left unattended, impede equal participation and equal access to public service. The main obstacle is known locally as the "Black Gold" problem, a negative legacy of Taiwan's authoritarian past. This custom grants individuals privileged access to public resources such as bank loans in exchange for personal and political gains, often in illicit alliance with outwardly respectable elements of organized crime. As a distortion of the political process, it severely damages the quality and accessibility of public service. Consequently, the Black Gold problem is one of our main concerns, and its elimination is a major goal of my administration.

In areas of other rights, progress has been similarly uneven. A crucial achievement has been our national health-insurance program, but we have yet to establish adequate unemployment-compensation or pension programs. The level of success in some other fields tends to depend on the varying strengths of civil society groups and the interaction between those groups. Although pressure-group politics is an unavoidable part of democracy; the haphazard nature of these interactions and of these occasional accomplishments requires the stabilizing presence that policies and the institutionalization of rights can provide.

This brief sketch would not be complete without mention of the state of human-rights awareness and institutionalization. In fact, diagnosis of this condition was the most important consideration that led to the development of my administration's human-rights policies and measures. …

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