DFAT documents on human rights in Taiwan

Last year I submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) via the website Right to Know. The purpose of the request was to find out about Australian government’s attitude toward and monitoring of human rights issues in Taiwan. In particular the request focused on information regarding the detention and trial of former president Chen Shui-bian and other officials from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on corruption related charges.

After several months the documents have been released by DFAT. There were a total of 24 cables from the Australian Office Taipei in the release. They cover the period from May 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou took office, to January this year.

The cables reveal several matters which were of particular interest to Australia. The first of these was the PNG bribery scandal. This involved a payment of US $30 million dollars to two middlemen in Singapore in an attempt to gain “diplomatic recognition” from PNG. The scandal resulted in then Vice-Premier Chiou I-jen and Minister for Foreign Affairs James Huang resigning in May 2008, shortly before President Chen Shui-bian’s term expired.

The cable dated 7 May 2008 notes that, “the most likely explanation for the whole affair would seem to be that [Huang and Chiou] were taken in by two conmen.” This analysis has proved correct although it was not until June 2012 that Chiou was found not guilty in the High Court.

The cables also note references in the media to a “Southern Project” or “secret diplomacy” in Australia. The cable dated 30 May 2008 discusses this in the context of President Ma Ying-jeou’s decision not to declassify files related to the State Affairs Fund case. Paragraph six of this cable notes that National Security Council Deputy Secretary-General Ho Szu-yin said that Chen had not handed over any files related to the “Southern Project” to Ma’s transition team and prosecutors did not believe there had ever been such a project.

The cable dated 27 October 2008 makes further reference to the “Southern Project”. It notes that the Apple Daily and TVBS reported Chen had told prosecutors that he had fabricated the “Southern Project” to divert attention from “secret diplomatic activities” concerning the United States and Japan. It also notes that Chen himself had never publicly referred to the “Southern Project”.

A cable dated 26 January 2009 concerns allegations reported in the Taiwanese media that Chen Shui-bian’s family had transferred large amounts of money Australia. A comment on the cable says, “At this stage we have no means of verifying the truth of the China Times story. If the story turns out to be true however, we may be contacted by the special investigating panel for assistance in identifying and tracing the alleged transfers of funds to Australia.”

The issue of funds transfers to Australia is again mentioned in a cable dated 10 February 2009. Again it only refers to allegations reported by the Taiwanese media. A cable dated 22 June 2010 notes an interview with Taiwanese-Australian businessman Gong Jin-yuan in the China Times. Gong said the “Southern Project” was a fabrication to help account for money spent for other purposes. Gong admitted to signing some receipts to “help his friend” Chen but denied he had received NT$6 million for the so-called “Southern Project”.

Overall there is a significant amount of discussion in the cables related to the detention and trials of Chen Shui-bian. These mention  concerns related to the fairness of the judicial process. Attention is also paid to the detention and trial of other DPP officials such as Chiou I-jen mentioned above. The cable dated 12 November 2008 notes the arrest and detention of a number of DPP officials. Comment on the cable says, “The KMT will need to tread carefully to counter accusations that authorities are using the judicial system for political purposes to target DPP officials.”

A follow up to this cable on 20 November 2008 notes a meeting with a source obviously sympathetic to the DPP. The source said the arrests without charge of DPP officials were politically motivated.

There is a notable gap in the cables from June 2010 to November 2012. This is most likely explained by the fact that Chen had already been through a number of trials by mid-2010 and they were no longer considered notable. Concerns about Chen’s mistreatment in prison and poor health came to the fore in the second half of 2012.

A cable dated 3 January 2013 notes a meeting with a source to discuss Chen’s health. The source had spoken to a number of doctors and they were consistent in their diagnosis that Chen needed medical parole and should not be kept in prison. The source also notes that administrators could exercise a lot of discretion and granting Chen medical parole was not simply a medical consideration.

Separate correspondence I received from DFAT in December last year confirms that the Australian Office Taipei has been monitoring Chen’s situation. The correspondence also notes that the Australian Office has been in touch with Chen’s supporters and has been briefed by them on their concerns about his treatment.

More general discussion of human rights issues is found in the cable dated 19 June 2009 titled “Recent developments in human rights”. It notes Taiwan’s ratification of the two main United Nations covenants on human rights. It then discusses several key human rights issues. The first of these is the judicial system. It notes scholars have argued there are weaknesses in Taiwan’s legal system particularly in pre-trial detention and [lack of] impartiality of the judiciary. It then discusses these concerns specifically in the case of Chen Shui-bian.

The other human rights issues discussed in this cable are the Assembly and Parade Law and the death penalty. The cables says there is “little debate about the death penalty in Taiwan.” This is in the context of there having been no executions carried out since December 2005. Executions resumed following a four year de facto moratorium in April 2010. There is no mention of these or subsequent executions in any of the cables.

Overall the cables highlight that the trials and detention of Chen Shui-bian have been closely monitored by the Australian government, but other human rights issues in Taiwan are barely mentioned. The lack of any discussion of executions that resumed under the Ma government shows a significant blind spot in Australia’s diplomacy.

*File: DFAT cables Taiwan. When reading the cables please note there have been redactions in accordance with the FoI Act. Section 22 refers to  material considered irrelevant to the request. Section 33 is material which is diplomatically sensitive. Section 47 is to protect the privacy or identity of individuals.