Legislators Leading Public Opinion on the Death Penalty

Legislators Leading Public Opinion on the Death Penalty
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

A recent report has found that many legislators in Taiwan privately believe that the death penalty should be abolished.

By Maria Wilkinson

On February 24, The Death Penalty Project, a legal action NGO in the United Kingdom, released a report on Taiwan’s lawmakers’ opinions on the death penalty based on a series of interviews. This study, which was conducted in association with Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty, showed that a majority of legislators interviewed would like to see the death penalty abolished.

Taiwan’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2009 obligated the country to move toward the eventual abolition of the death penalty without delay. Thirteen years later, Taiwan has yet to abolish the death penalty. A major factor in the lack of action is the widely held yet unfounded belief that a majority of citizens favor keeping capital punishment.

Discussing the death penalty with the public or with legislators in Taiwan is often a taboo topic. Taipei city councilor Miao Poya (苗博雅), recently spoke to a small group on the legislative report, stating “this research finally breaks through the ice to understand the legislature’s feelings about the death penalty.” 

The researchers found that 61% of lawmakers interviewed favor the abolition of the death penalty. By contrast, only 39% were in favor of retention and only one of the legislators claimed to be “strongly in favor of retention.” When asked for their reasons for favoring retention of the death penalty, the leading reason was because it’s necessary to deter crime.

While deterrence is the leading reason cited for retaining the death penalty, when asked how to deter crime best, legislators predominately chose “education, intervention, and preventative treatment over death sentences.” This response highlights that beneath the surface, legislators in Taiwan believe that other methods are more effective than the death penalty. 

The scholarly literature supports the views of many legislators. Many studies show that there is no credible evidence to indicate that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crimes.  A 2019 report by the Death Penalty Project, a face-to-face survey administered to over 2,000 people in Taiwan, concluded that if the public has access to more information, like the death penalty’s ineffectiveness as a deterrent, they are less likely to support the death penalty as a form of punishment.

Legislators were also asked why they believed Taiwan had not yet abolished the death penalty. The highest-ranked response of 65% is “because the majority of citizens are still in favor of the death penalty, there is no pressure to do so.” Though, from the 2019 research, we can see that public opinion is not immutable. This is why it is important that the government steps up to lead this change. Mongolia, the most recent country in Asia to abolish the death penalty, was guided on their path to abolition by the support of political leaders, in particular, their former president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj.

A majority of Mongolia’s population also supported the retention of the death penalty. Yet in 2010, Elbegdorj called for an end to the death penalty, pledged a moratorium on executions and commuted death sentences to 30-year-sentences. His efforts didn’t stop there though. He continued to proactively persuade members of parliament to follow in his footsteps. These actions shifted political and public opinion, setting the groundwork for absolute abolition in 2015 under a new criminal code. Saul Lehrfreund, co-executive director of The Death Penalty Project, responded to this report by saying that the facts were now clearer than ever for Taiwanese legislators, “It’s not about following public opinion; it’s about leading public opinion.”

We now have a valuable resource for conversations on abolishing the death penalty in Taiwan. There’s a phrase in Taiwan, “public views are as ever-flowing as running water,” used to illustrate the susceptibility of public opinion to change. We hope that legislators will take the lead in changing this conversation.

If you would like to know more about this research and the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty’s current work, please contact TAEDP at info@taedp.org.

Maria Wilkinson is a research intern at Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty.


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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