• By Huang Yu-zhe 黃于哲

The debate on the death penalty, always in the background in Taiwan, is sometimes brought to the fore.

The Chinese-language United Daily News published a report titled “Death Sentences and Executions Reduced to Zero Last Year, Virtual Abolition of the Death Penalty” on February 13.

Following the high-profile cases of Tseng Wen-yan (曾文彥) and Chen Po-chien (陳伯謙), whose death sentences were commuted to life in prison, Justice Minister Tsai Ching-hsiang (蔡清祥) said he respects the court’s decision on a case-by-case basis.

Regarding the 38 detainees awaiting execution, he said, “There is no deliberate procrastination, we are awaiting the conclusion of the judicial process.”

Public outrage over the convictions of Tseng and Chen quickly dissipated.

The past two decades have seen a cyclical response to the question. If a death row inmate is executed, it sparks a week-long national conversation about the death penalty across the political spectrum, but efforts to educate the public about the human rights implications of capital punishment have not led nowhere.

For both the political elite and the public, the situation is maintained by the ambivalence of debates on the role of the death penalty in restorative justice and retribution.

Would it be possible to proceed differently or to get out of it better if the debate took place at the political level?

The 2000 election of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who became president with a narrow margin of votes, proved to be a turning point in Taiwan’s path towards implementing the principles of human rights.

The then president swore in his inaugural address to “a nation built on the foundation of human rights” and “human rights diplomacy”.

The driving forces behind Chen Shui-bian’s political stances were Taiwan Human Rights Association President Peter Huang (黃文雄) and Taiwan New Century Foundation President Chen Lung-chu (陳隆志).

Chen Shui-bian established the Presidential Human Rights Advisory Committee, which is made up mainly of academics, lawyers and civil society advocates.

In practice, the vice president would serve as the convener of the committee, formulating discussions on key human rights issues and then sending advice to the president.

Then-Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) was among those who led efforts to establish a national human rights institution. Unfortunately, these lofty ideas did not materialize when the DPP lost its legislative majority in 2004.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers have criticized Chen Shui-bian’s human rights initiatives as aimed at extending power beyond the reach of presidential authority. The KMT boycotted several of its human rights projects, including efforts to establish a national human rights museum.

In this context, and under pressure from civil society organizations and the international community, the then Minister of Justice, Chen Ding-nan (陳定南), said he was determined to abolish the death penalty.

Nevertheless, Chen Ding-nan and his successor, Morley Shih (施茂林), continued to sign execution orders, although the number gradually decreased during Chen Shui-bian’s eight years in office, totaling 32 .

Chen Shui-bian’s successor, former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), advocated “governing the nation based on the principles of human rights”.

With this in mind, he continued the operation of the advisory committee, but in 2017, the then vice president, Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), often lectured him on what he could not do. As a result, Wu did not earn much respect from the committee members.

Mab Huang (黃默), a professor at Soochow University, said Ma’s eight years in office presented an enigma.

On the one hand, Ma had been instrumental in the ratification of two international covenants, thus laying the foundation stone for the writing of national reports and bringing together international experts to propose recommendations. On the other hand, Ma was explicitly opposed to the abolition of the death penalty and the creation of a national human rights commission.

During Ma’s administration, 33 prisoners were executed.

While Huang Shih-ming (黃世銘), a candidate for attorney general at the time, told a legislative review committee meeting that “44 convicts should be executed”, the justice minister of At the time, Wang Ching-feng (王清峰), a practicing Buddhist, said she would not. sign all execution orders, a stance that led to controversy and eventually his resignation.

The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has not committed to abolishing the death penalty, nor has it guaranteed that the 38 death row inmates on the waiting list would not be executed.

The issue apparently remains a stumbling block for politicians to move forward with a clear policy that would abolish the death penalty.

The judicial community has not ruled out possible executions.

Nevertheless, as stated by Lin Hsin-yi (林欣怡), executive director of the Taiwan Alliance for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, judicial changes have moved in a more positive direction.

However, the nation is not quite ready for the abolition of the death penalty, as prosecutors are still asking for executions in a few cases that do not meet the criteria of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The only reason there were no executions last year was that there were no convictions resulting in death sentences.

Tsai Ing-wen only has two years left in office. Her legacy will be measured by what she achieved and the future she fought for in the belief that she was on the right side of history.

By abolishing the death penalty, she can highlight one of the most striking differences between her government and the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party when it comes to respect for human rights.

Huang Yu-zhe is a student at the Graduate Institute of Law and Interdisciplinary Studies of National Chengchi University.

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