On 7 December 2012, Amnesty International called on Taiwan’s government to resist public pressure to reinstate the death penalty. This comes after a 10 year old boy was murdered in Tainan at the beginning of December and claims that the murderer is not afraid because of Taiwan’s retreat from enforcing capital punishment. Several demonstrations called for the murderer to be executed and the Ministry of Justice has said that ‘executions must be carried out’ but has not yet set a date.
A marker of a civilisation is how people are treated: children, the sick, the elderly, victims of crimes and the criminals themselves. While the trauma that victims and their families experience should be neither forgotten nor ignored, a civilised society also avoids murdering the perpetrators.
This is a moral argument, but morals also provide society with an extraordinary amount of soft power capital.
My core belief about Taiwan’s soft power strategy is that it emphasises the wrong story: the narratives of Taiwan’s successful democratisation and its current position as the first Chinese democracy are routinely ignored in favour of attempts to label Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture. However, there is a significant flaw in my argument to which I need to draw attention, and that flaw is the continued use of the death penalty.
A report by the BBC earlier this year (link to the source) highlighted how Taiwan’s judiciary often base their sentencing on unreliable evidence (or most disturbing of all, sometimes no evidence whatsoever). While this is hardly unique to Taiwan – all countries which maintain the death penalty risk making mistakes in sentencing the innocent to such a fate – this practice does constrain Taiwan’s image as a maturing democracy and as a contrast to the PRC. Criticism by important organisations such as the European Union, and Amnesty International, more used to pointing the finger at the PRC than at Taiwan, has damaged its soft power.
However, I would suggest that what is more worrying than the fact that Taiwan maintains this barbaric practice, is that the political elites fear the wrath of public opinion should they decide to abolish the death penalty. Just because ‘surveys show that more than 70% of the population favours it’ does not make it right; sometimes leaders have to lead against public opinion – that is as much a characteristic of democracy as following it, and the government must respond carefully but with authority to the current demonstrations in favour of the death penalty. President Ma Ying-jeou, a keen advocate of ‘Soft power’, ended a short three year moratorium (2006-9) and appointed Justice Tseng Yung-fu who ordered four people executed in 2010 and a further five in 2011. 15 convicts were sentenced to death at the Supreme Court last year. It is to Taiwan’s credit that although these convicts were sentenced, no-one has been executed in 2012. Most worrying is that there is no procedure that allows for anyone sentenced to death to seek a pardon or for the sentence to be commuted. This is a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the Legislative Yuan has voted to implement. Again, the victim is Taiwan’s international reputation as a democratic political system.
There are now 61 inmates serving time on death row. If Taiwan really wants to project itself as a benevolent democracy – and to provide an alternative to authoritarian rule in the PRC – then the complete abolition of the death penalty despite public opinion may just help elevate its international image and thus gather for Taiwan a little more support, respect and sympathy.
Gary D. Rawnsley is non-residential Senior Fellow in CPI. Click here to visit his personal blog.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors