OPINION: Taiwan's Resumption of Executions Is a Major Diplomatic Own-Goal

OPINION: Taiwan's Resumption of Executions Is a Major Diplomatic Own-Goal
Credit: Depositphotos

What you need to know

Taiwan can't effectively preach soft power while continuing to execute its citizens.

On the afternoon of Friday Aug. 31, Lee Hung-chi (李宏基) was executed by firing squad at a jail in Kaohsiung. His crime was a heinous one.

In April 2014, Lee, now 39, stabbed his ex-wife to death outside the kindergarten attended by their two young daughters. He then abducted one of the girls and drove into the mountains where he drugged her, before setting fire to charcoal in the car. His objective was for them both to die, but they were rescued.

Lee later made a full recovery, but his daughter died in hospital two months later.

Lee was initially handed a 15-year sentence for the murder of his wife, and a life term for causing the death of his daughter. However, Taiwan’s High Court later increased the sentences to life in prison for his wife’s murder and the death sentence for his daughter’s death. These sterner sentences were subsequently upheld by Taiwan’s Supreme Court in 2016.

It is easy to look at the mainstream media coverage of Lee’s execution and think the decision to proceed was a straightforward one. According to the Ministry of Justice statement announcing the execution, Lee had shown no remorse and indicated that he still felt the need to gain revenge against his ex-wife’s family over her taking custody of his daughters. It went on to claim that Lee therefore continued to pose a serious threat to law and order.

But as we have seen time and again around the world, the decision for the state to execute someone has to take into account far more than the individual circumstances and crimes committed. And in Taiwan’s unique political position, such broader considerations are even more important.

Photo Credit: 鄭性澤平反大隊
Read More: Cheng Hsing-tse: Finally Free from Death Row's Shadow

International condemnation

When making decisions over death-row inmates, it seems unlikely that Taiwanese officials give much consideration to the diplomatic implications of the use of capital punishment. That would require the kind of joined-up government that Taiwan is not exactly renowned for. But such considerations should take place because the impact this latest execution has had on Taiwan’s international reputation has been profound.

This execution comes at a time when Taiwan’s standing in the developed world is at something of a high. In the face of ongoing political and diplomatic aggression from the Communist regime in China, Taiwan has retained a dignified position and implemented various effective soft-power strategies which have won admiration around the world.

The widespread condemnation of Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea and its use of debt-diplomacy to lure the support of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies has resulted in a steady stream of critical government statements and an increase in negative headlines about China around the world. All of this is to Taiwan’s advantage.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s soft-diplomacy continues to make inroads with the New Southbound Policy, which notionally adopts a people-centric approach to overseas outreach, beginning to reap real rewards in terms of growing tourism and trade links. The United States in particular has shown huge support to Taiwan in recent times, passing several pieces of pro-Taiwan legislation to allow things like greater military oversight and inter-governmental exchanges.

However, all of this progress has taken a knock as a result of the decision to execute Lee because, with the exception of the U.S., there is no other developed democratic country on earth which condones capital punishment.

The Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), Lin Hsinyi (林欣怡) told The News Lens that, not long after the Ministry of Justice announced the execution of Lee, her organization had fielded calls from the representatives offices of the UK, Germany and the European Union to find out more about what had happened and why. While they knew that the death penalty still existed in Taiwan, they were of the view that, at least under the current administration, it would not be used.

Credit: 鄭性澤平反大隊
Lin Hsinyi (R), speaks at a press conference announcing the release from death row of Cheng Hsing-tse, who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of a police officer. Cheng was the fifth person to be exonerated after being sentenced to death in Taiwan.

That is partly because Lee was the first man to be executed under since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) came to power in 2016.

All three offices subsequently released statements condemning the execution, along with many other de-facto embassies in Taiwan. The EU statement described capital punishment as “a cruel and inhumane punishment, which fails to act as a deterrent and represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity.”

It also made reference to the first EU-Taiwan Human Rights Consultations, which were held as recently as this March. At those discussions, the EU pressed Taiwan on the issue of capital punishment and discussed the merits of holding a broader public debate in Taiwan to ensure Taiwanese people are more informed about the consequences and alternatives to capital punishment.

While the Taiwanese representatives at those discussions didn’t commit to the abolition of the death penalty, they did suggest to the EU representatives that they were seeking to make progress. To then carry out an execution less than six months later will only serve to undermine communication and trust between Taiwan and the EU.

Some will argue that the execution of Lee will matter little in the context of the current geo-political situation in Taiwan. In a sense, they are right, but that position overlooks the underlying message that the use of capital punishment sends out. Not only does it undermine the sense that Taiwan is committed to human rights at all costs, but it also brings into question Taiwan’s reliability as an ally more generally. If they can’t be trusted on capital punishment, what can they be trusted on?

Perhaps most damaging of all is the lingering sense that perhaps Taiwan isn’t so different from Communist China after all. This isn’t the countless pseudo-judicial killings carried out by the Communist party, but it is still a state killing. Differentiation from China is of fundamental importance to Taiwan’s diplomatic progress and anything which threatens it is potentially damaging.

The need for strong leadership

Amnesty International released a tersely-worded statement shortly after the execution, describing it as “deeply disappointing” and “an act that casts a shadow over Tsai’s presidency.” They highlighted that President Tsai had clearly stated that it was her government’s aim to abolish the death penalty and noted how ‘hollow’ that pledge sounds now, especially given that the execution took place on the president’s birthday.

It doesn’t make a great impression and will further fuel those who are perhaps questioning Taiwan’s honesty over the issue at the EU-Taiwan Human Rights Consultations.

Campaigners had hoped that the two-year unofficial moratorium during the Tsai presidency might be the prelude to formal abolition. But to deliver that, Taiwan has some big domestic hurdles to overcome.

Public support for the death penalty in Taiwan remains high. This is a fact. But it also oversimplifies what is a complicated and ethically challenging issue.

According to the TAEDP, around 80 percent of Taiwanese people support the continued use of capital punishment. However, this level of support is only achieved by asking people the direct and simplistic question, “Do you support the death penalty?” Once you start placing capital punishment alongside more humane alternatives, support drops dramatically.

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Pro-death penalty supporters display white roses during a rally in front of Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, April 10, 2016.

In 2014, TAEDP carried out a survey which asked people about a possible alternative to capital punishment. Their suggestion was that death row inmates could have their sentences replaced with a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In addition, they proposed that these inmates would be required to work while in prison to compensate the families of their victims. When presented with this alternative, 71 percent of respondents were supportive of such a change.

What this survey shows is that while on the face of it people do support the death penalty, what they really want is strong justice which makes them feel safe and punishes those guilty of the most atrocious offences. They believe the death penalty offers this. But it is not the only solution and there are alternatives which can gain similar support if communicated to the people effectively. That is what the EU was pushing towards in their discussions with the Taiwanese Government back in March.

However, making progress with replacing the death penalty in this way requires strong leadership, deeper thinking, and political courage. And at the moment in Taiwan, all of this is sadly lacking. Elected officials look at polls which show high support for capital punishment and don’t see any need to consider alternatives that might be better for Taiwan and its people in the long run.

This lack of courage and conviction and willingness to take political risks is to the detriment of the Taiwanese people, the political parties themselves, and the country as a whole. Few people will switch their vote on the basis of their support or opposition to the death penalty. There are other issues which carry far more importance with the electorate. Meanwhile, the diplomatic and soft-power gains from abolition would be significant, as shown by the negative reaction to Lee’s execution. But still, no politician from either main party is willing to make a stand.

The example of Mongolia

You do not have to look too far to see what can be achieved when the leader of a country shows the moral and political fortitude to stand up for what they believe in.

In 2016, the death penalty was abolished in Mongolia in a move spearheaded and driven by President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Elbegdorj was elected in 2009 and immediately began using his prerogative of pardon to prevent the use of the death penalty. He repeatedly stated that he believed Mongolia should follow the lead of most other civilized countries and abolish capital punishment.

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Mongolia's then President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj addresses the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York on Sept. 20, 2016.

The announcement was not popular with politicians of all sides and the majority of the Mongolian people opposed to his stance. Over the next two years, the president worked closely with politicians of all parties and the Mongolian public on possible alternatives to capital punishment.

On Jan. 5, 2012, less than three years later, a bill to abolish the death penalty in Mongolia was passed. It achieved the support of the vast majority of politicians of all colors, as well as the approval of most of the Mongolian people.

The road to abolition in Mongolia is clear evidence of what can be achieved with strong leadership, an open public debate on the issues, cross-party consultation, and viable alternatives being proposed. And it is worth noting that Mongolian politics is every bit as partisan as it is here in Taiwan.

Where does Taiwan go from here?

Taiwan needs to learn from their achievements. And it needs to learn fast. Taiwan’s standing in the world owes much to its position as Asia’s most thriving democracy and as a beacon of human rights, in contrast to the dire situation in neighboring China.

But as long as the death penalty remains, this reputation is consistently undermined. As long as the Taiwanese state grants itself the authority to take the life of its citizens, it leaves itself open to unnecessary comparisons with its authoritarian neighbors.

It is time that President Tsai showed the courage of her convictions. Her lagging polls are more down to her failure to deliver what supporters expected and were promised of her than any single issue. She was swept to victory by a landslide with hope for real change. But she has failed to deliver this on issues of fundamental importance such as transitional justice for indigenous peoples, equal marriage, and capital punishment. Her supporters are disillusioned.

As Lin Hsinyi of TAEDP said to me when discussing this issue, “If you say your long-term goal is to abolish the death penalty gradually, then you must do something to move towards that goal. You cannot say I’m going to abolish the death penalty gradually, and then do nothing because you think that’s what the public wants. I think we have to learn from Mongolia on this.”

The international condemnation of the execution of Lee Hung-chi should have rattled President Tsai and her government. It should have officials across the Taiwanese government questioning whether it is worth continuing with a policy so strongly opposed by those allies Taiwan depends upon.

It is not too late from President Tsai to show some moral fortitude and deliver the strong leadership decisions that her supporters want. She doesn’t have a lot to lose by pursuing abolition of the death penalty, but so much to gain. The question is whether President Tsai or those around her can summon up the courage to do the right thing for Taiwan and the Taiwanese people.

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Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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