At the center of Taiwan’s efforts to ameliorate its diplomatic isolation has been an effort to promote itself as one of Asia’s most progressive democracies, especially during President Tsai Ing-wen’s term. Following the legalization of same-sex marriage, the "Taiwan Can Help" and "Taiwan is Helping" campaigns of sending medical aid abroad have been the latest successes in winning international plaudits.

A recent execution and an ambiguous stance on death penalty abolition threaten to derail these efforts.

Weng Jen-hsien (翁仁賢) was executed by order of the Ministry of Justice on April 1. It had been a year and seven months since the last execution in Taiwan. Weng was convicted last year of setting a fire that killed his parents and four relatives during the Lunar New Year’s Eve holiday in 2016.

Taiwan's anti-death penalty community immediately expressed righteous indignation at the execution. The Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) announced in a press release on April 3 its decision to quit the Gradual Death Penalty Abolition Research and Promotion Team of the Ministry of Justice, citing their abrogation of the rule of law.

The TAEDP said the Ministry of Justice paradoxically continues to carry out capital punishment based on a law that it regards as flawed. "This is not implementing the rule of law. This is disregarding the rule of law and is an illegal execution," the TAEDP wrote.

Minister of Justice Tsai Ching Hsiang (蔡清祥) responded that he only did what he had to do. He said he would continue promoting death penalty abolition, but would implement the death penalty judiciously while it is still legal.


Photo Credit: CNA

Minister of Justice Tsai Ching Hsiang

When Premier Su Tseng Chang (蘇貞昌) said, "Confirmed death sentences should be carried out," during a legislative inquiry on October 25 last year, the TAEDP criticized his remark relentlessly. At that time, Premier Su cited Weng as an example of a criminal whose act was “heinous from heaven to earth.”

The execution has also aroused disapproval internationally. The European External Action Service (EEAS), the official diplomatic arm of the European Union, released a statement on April 3 condemning Weng’s crime and sympathizing with the families of the victims, while clarifying that the EU opposes the use of capital punishment under any circumstance.

"The death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment, which fails to act as a deterrent to crime and represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity," the EEAS statement read. It thereupon called on Taiwan to "refrain from any future executions" and to "pursue a consistent policy towards the abolition of the death penalty."

Taiwan is not the only country in which capital punishment is carried out. Many East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and China are still executing prisoners and have received criticism from international human rights organizations.

However, it seems more morally inconsistent for Taiwan to keep the death penalty on the books. Taiwan has sought to brand itself as one of Asia’s most progressive democracies.

Weng was the second inmate executed under the Tsai administration. The first execution was carried out in August 2018 when a 41-year-old man was put to death for killing his ex-wife and five-year-old daughter. There are currently 39 prisoners on death row.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, Taiwan's strong response to the crisis has helped raise its international profile, with media reports saluting its response appearing by the dozen. It has also successfully scored a public relations victory by donating over 10 million face masks to countries in need.

It seems that Taiwan has mitigated its international isolation with its "Taiwan Can Help" and "Taiwan is Helping" campaign. But while expressions of gratitude abound for Taiwan, the recent execution and ambiguous stance on gradual death penalty abolition may quickly reverse any diplomatic gains.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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