The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 20:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
ROC Constitution (de facto constitution of Taiwan) Article 14 :
The people shall have freedom of assembly and of association.
International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights Article 21:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
On 31 March the Legislative Yuan ratified two international covenants on rights including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The purpose of this document is to more clearly explain how the rights expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be protected under the law.
It might seem strange that Taiwan signed the documents in the United Nations in 1967 and only just now ratified them when it no longer has representation in the UN. Peter Huang, Chairman of Amnesty International Taiwan, explains that the ratification is important for several reasons. The legislature not only ratified the conventions, it also passed a law on their implementation which says they have legal effect regardless of whether or not they are deposited with the UN. The law also calls for a national human rights reporting system to regularly monitor the implementation of covenants.
Hence, the ratification of the covenants and associated legislation provides a stronger framework for implementing the rights that are expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Chapter Two of the ROC Constitution.
So why is it that only a month after passing this important legislation the government is trying to push through amendments to the Parade and Assembly Law (集會遊行法) which further curb the basic right of freedom of assembly? The reason the the Assembly Law exists is a remnant of the time immediately following the end of martial law when the state still maintained strict controls on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
Some might point to Article 21 of the ICCPR which says the right of freedom of assembly may be restricted “in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” However, if a government wants to legislate on the basis of this article it needs to ensure that it doesn’t undermine the basic right which the article protects.
Peter Huang, in an article on the Assembly Law, criticises Article 11 of the amended act which “would grant competent authorities the power to prohibit, restrict or change the planned route of a rally or protest before it starts in three circumstances [threat to national security, social order or public interest].” This is problematic in that it doesn’t clearly define these threats and it gives the police at the protest with the power to make this decision. Without clear guidelines to follow police would be able to make decisions arbitrarily. They would also be more easily subject to political pressure.
As I have noted before there are already numerous examples of police overstepping the limits of their powers in recent times. Furthermore, government bodies have not been effective in investigating abuses of police power. Hence, giving police greater powers to control protests would almost certainly lead to further cases of police denying citizens their basic rights.
There is still some way to go before Taiwan might become a police state. However, there can already be seen a willingness of police to act in ways which deny certain groups their civil rights and undermine democracy. It is taking Taiwan one step away from being a free and democratic country and one step closer to becoming like Singapore.
When the Assembly Law was originally passed in 1988 Taiwan was a very different place. It now has a strong civil society and democracy. Fears that society would be become chaotic if people were given more freedom to protest are unfounded. The Parade and Assembly Law is not in line with the spirit of the constitution and has no place in a free Taiwan. Abolishing the law would reflect the maturity of Taiwanese society and a commitment by the government to maintaining a democratic, pluralistic society.