Taiwan steady in Freedom House rankings

Freedom in the World 2001 map of Asia

Freedom House released its Freedom in the World 2011 report yesterday. The report’s key finding was that freedom declined globally for the fifth consecutive year. Freedom House noted that authoritarian regimes like those in China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela continued to step up repressive measures with little significant resistance from the democratic world.

Taiwan’s ranking was unchanged from last year. Taiwan scored one for political rights and two for civil liberties to retain its status as “free”. Taiwan’s scores were the same as South Korea and Japan. The Taipei Times has some comments about Taiwan from a researcher at Freedom House.

“Taiwan remained one of Asia’s strongest democracies,” Sarah Cook, Asia research analyst and assistant editor at Freedom House, told the Taipei Times by e-mail yesterday.

“Municipal elections held [on Nov. 27] were widely viewed as free and fair, despite a shooting at a rally the evening before the polls,” Cook said.

[…]

On the handling of the corruption charges against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Cook said: “Procedural irregularities evident in earlier stages of … [the] case did not appear to repeat as the case moved up the judiciary during the appeal’s process.”

In its 2010 report, which covered events in 2009, Freedom House had pointed to “flaws” in the handling of Chen’s case.

Freedom House also specifically noted concerns about press freedom in Taiwan. Again quoting from the Taipei Times:

“The early dismissal of the leadership of the Public Television Service following a series of disputes raised concerns over the independence of publicly funded media,” Cook said, continuing a trend observed in last year’s report, which said that “reforms and personnel changes at publicly owned media since 2008 have raised concerns about politicization.”

Freedom House have been compiling their reports for forty years now and have a well established methodology. It seems reasonable that there were no events that were sufficient enough to bring about a change in Taiwan’s ranking. However, I think it is worthwhile reviewing a few important human rights issues from 2010.

One of the most worrying events in 2010 was the return of the death penalty. The government executed four men on 30 April ending an unofficial moratorium on executions that had lasted more than four years. Any hopes that Taiwan may be moving towards another moratorium or eventual abolition of the death penalty seem faint. Last month the Minister for Justice said the government will carry out executions of death row inmates once all legal avenues are exhausted.

There was a brief triumph for supporters of the abolition of the death penalty when the High Court found the Hsichih Trio not guilty in November. However, this was short lived as the prosecutors filed another appeal. The three men have already been subjected to thirteen trials over almost twenty years. This prompted Amnesty International to release a statement calling on the government to address flaws in the judicial proceedings in the case and immediately implement a moratorium on the death penalty.

The Hsichih Trio case highlights systemic problems in Taiwan’s justice system. Problems with judicial rights in Taiwan were specifically noted by Freedom House in its report last year. The timing of trials involving Chen Shui-bian and decisions made by judges in the lead up to the five cities election this year raised important questions about the independence of the judiciary. I wrote last month that the government has so far failed to take any meaningful action to implement the judicial reforms that Taiwan really needs.

There was a notable case of judicial activism in September. The Taipei District Court suspended a case involving one of the initiators of the Wild Strawberry Movement until there was a constitutional interpretation of the Assembly and Parade Law (集會遊行法). Freedom of assembly has been an important issue since it came into the spotlight during the visit of Chen Yunlin in 2008. However, the KMT has failed to use its majority in the legislature to abolish or amend the law.

Taiwan’s score for political rights in the Freedom House survey stands at one, the best possible score. Taiwan held elections in five special municipalities in November and Taiwan’s electoral system is widely  seen as free and fair. The shooting of Sean Lien (連勝文) on the eve of the five cities election caused considerable controversy. Although it is difficult to say whether the shooting influenced the election results, it certainly damaged the credibility of Taiwan’s democracy. It also showed that many members of the KMT still maintain close connections with organised crime. Furthermore some media organisations and politicians quickly took advantage of the shooting to manipulate voters.

While Taiwanese may be able to freely vote for their representatives, in 2010 they were repeatedly denied the right to vote in referendums. The TSU’s third application for a referendum on ECFA was rejected by the Referendum Review Committee for the third time earlier this month. I argued after the first rejection of a TSU-proposed referendum on ECFA that it was a clear denial of democratic rights. This also highlights concerns about the lack of transparency in negotiations between Taiwan and China over ECFA and other agreements.

There have also been multiple concerns about press freedom since President Ma Ying-jeou took up office 2008. Press freedom is often considered a barometer of human rights and democratic practice. Hence the continuing problems Taiwan is experiencing in this area should be of great concern.

Taiwan may have retained its human rights ranking in 2010 but there is still cause for concern. There is a need for vigilance and action to ensure that human rights in Taiwan don’t go backwards in 2011.

*More details about Freedom in the World 2011 are available on Freedom House’s website. An article by Yang Tsung-li, the deputy director of Amnesty International Taiwan, published in the Taipei Times last month also highlights some important issues.

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