What you need to know
Taiwan has earned plaudits for domesticated human rights reforms, but NGOs accuse successive administrations of failing to keep promises to do more.
Owing to political tensions with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan dropped out of the United Nations in 1971 and became the very few states that does not have a UN membership. It means Taiwan is excluded from UN human rights bodies carrying human rights monitoring mechanisms, which means Taiwan must go its own way to meet international human rights standards.
This starts with endowing UN human rights treaties with domestic legal status.
What is the Taiwan model?
The Legislative Yuan passed the Two International Covenants Enforcement Act (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) in 2009 which has set up the stage for review by international experts for both 2013 and 2017. Three other UN human rights treaties were also endowed domestic legal status in the following years within the provisions including a state report and an international review which should be given every four or five years.
The Taiwan model at least has three features. First, the procedure of international review is formulated and implemented by government and local NGOs; second, the review is similar to the UN’s treaty-based reporting procedure as a whole but adjusts to local needs; third, it takes place in Taipei which encourages government and civil representatives to engage, according to an introductory article written by Kuo Ming-li (郭銘禮) and Chen Yu-jie (陳玉潔) in Taiwan Human Rights Journal.
The Two Covenants review has created a pattern for the other three human rights covenants review. This model gathers international experts, NGOs, and government officials to monitor local human rights practices, an effect which has received praise from international human rights experts, according to a written interview conducted by Taiwan Human Rights Journal.
Virginia Bonoan-Dandan, a UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity, stated the local review helps Taiwanese civil society to be well presented, and the Review Committee can access additional information without difficulty when necessary.
“This serves a very important human rights education process in the country. Subsequently, a more robust accountability atmosphere is created for the government to implement the concluding observations that emerge from the review,” said Miloon Kothari, president of Universal Periodic Review Info.
All experts who served on the Review Committee recognize the major advantage different from the UN model is the review taking place in the country gives a chance for much larger participation of civil society, government officials and independent parties instead of having them fly to Geneva. The experts spend a whole week in Taipei reviewing the respective reports, while the UN review is confined to a maximum of two days.
“One major advantage is to put local NGOs and high-ranking officials in respective fields together to communicate, as in the past we only could get in touch with low-ranking ones who lack the power to make a final decision,” said Tuhi Martukaw (洪簡廷卉), founder of LIMA Taiwan Indigenous Youth Association. “This is a huge improvement for indigenous NGOs.”
A shadow report that responds to a state report is also an important reference for international experts to get familiar with Taiwan’s situation, carried out by Covenants Watch, a coalition of human rights NGOs, lawyers, academics, and activists founded in 2009. Covenants Watch creates solidarity among human rights NGOs of all fields and takes a leading role in coordinating information and energy, said Shih Yi-hsiang (施逸翔), deputy secretary general of Taiwan Association for Human Rights.
Experts consider that if this model becomes effective, Taiwan will take the lead worldwide regarding human rights protection and also show the UN a beneficial way to monitor human rights condition in each member state. “I also think it is a very good step – one that should in fact be considered in the current GA 2020 treaty body strengthening process – to conduct treaty body reviews ‘in country’ as this brings the UN bodies closer to the situations they are monitoring,” said Kothari.
In the beginning of making state reports for the first review in 2013, “the suspicion, hostility and resistance arouse among government agencies as they were not familiar with the idea of human rights [along with] their instinct to defend their own turf,” according to Mab Huang (黃默), former chief advisor in the Secretariat Steering Committee, per his December 2018 article in Taiwan Human Rights Journal.
Many recognize those international reviews reflect the concept to meet the international human rights system, but not enough for practice. “We realize our state report has a problem, there is no big difference from four years ago,” said Martukaw.
Another challenge comes to the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission based on the Paris Principles, which has been advocated by the public since 2001 and also reiterated by the Review Committee in different covenant reviews.
It works as an independent National Human Rights Institution to promote and safeguard human rights. Several countries in the Asian-Pacific region have already accepted the model including South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Australia, according to the website of Covenants Watch.
However, successive governments have ignored the issue, including current President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). She had committed to making a concrete decision before the year 2018 which is a clear sign that she has already broken her promise.
Some critics point out the government agencies in charge of holding the reviews are relatively low-level agencies, such as the Social and Family Affairs Administration under the Ministry of Health and Welfare which is responsible for CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and CRC (Convention on the Rights of Children) reviews. “It is difficult for a low-level authority to put pressure on other counterparts to implement the Concluding Observations and Recommendations,” said Kuo Min-li (郭銘禮), judge of Taipei District Court.
The strong urge for establishing a “Human Rights Committee of the Executive Yuan” never stopped from the public, which design could coordinate the inter-ministerial human rights affairs to be more efficient on the highest level of administration. As Kuo added, there is still a widespread lack of talent in government after the practice of several reviews.
Future: Hope for change and the unchanged trend
Experts and NGOs said the government regards the review as a political achievement rather than a national policy, and there is a fine line between the two. They considered if the government combines human rights covenants into major national policy, related affairs will become a main-stream in a political arena, and the review will become not just a reference.
Both Huang and Martukaw pinpointed an urgent need for inter-departmental coordination and a need for a higher-ranking official to push forward human rights issues.
“At least as Tsai Ing-wen began her presidency, the government has changed from ‘unfamiliar’ to ‘begin not to be unfamiliar.’ I can tell this trend would not change under the transition of the ruling parties,” said Fu-te Liao (廖福特), president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
“I think the concept of ‘a nation founded upon the principles of human rights’ proposed by ex-President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) can be a good focal point for Taiwan to promote diplomacy,” Martukaw said. “When it comes to human rights and freedom in Asia, Taiwan is in the lead.”
Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens
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