More than 400 human rights defenders from all over the world gathered in Taipei from Monday to yesterday to discuss how to confront challenges to the universality of human rights. It was the first time in its nearly 100-year history that the Congress of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) was held in Asia.
The issue was front and center on the agenda as death row exoneree Hsu Tzu-chiang (徐自強) gave his powerful testimony during Monday morning’s opening ceremony — application of the death penalty is clearly inconsistent with international human rights standards.
I sat next to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) as Hsu told us of how he was sentenced to death in 1996 and incarcerated for 16 years before he was released in 2012.
Hsu also told the story of 60-year-old Chiou Ho-shun (邱和順), who was sentenced to death in 1989 for murder, following an extremely flawed and unfair trial. Chiou has been behind bars for 31 years, the last eight of which have been on death row.
That afternoon, I headed an FIDH international delegation that visited the Taipei Detention Center, where Chiou is incarcerated. Our delegation also saw the execution site, and held a productive meeting with prison authorities and officials from the Agency of Corrections.
I cannot hide that spending time at the execution site was among the darkest and most important moments of my human rights work.
Chiou, along with 22 other death row inmates at the detention center, could be executed at any time. The detention center told us that death row inmates receive 30 minutes’ notice before being taken to the facility’s execution site. In many cases, family members are only informed after the execution, which is carried out by being shot to death with a handgun.
Hearing about Chiou’s judicial odyssey and the visit to the detention center reaffirmed my conviction that the death penalty is a cruel and barbaric punishment that violates every aspect of human dignity. I find it difficult to reconcile that a modern and vibrant democracy like Taiwan retains such an outdated and inhumane practice.
At the very least, Tsai should establish an immediate moratorium on all executions as a key step toward the complete abolition of capital punishment. Chiou and all other death row inmates in Taiwan should no longer live in fear of a looming execution.
When it comes to human rights, Taiwan has shown that it can be a pioneer. Earlier this year, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. The nation now has an opportunity to demonstrate that it can be a regional human rights leader by abolishing capital punishment.
It is true that important changes often provoke feelings of insecurity among societies. Yet, Taiwanese have nothing to fear from the abolition of the death penalty. When then-French president Francois Mitterrand abolished the death penalty in 1981, public opinion was not in favor of the move. Today in France, no one is in favor of reintroducing the death penalty, apart from followers of the far-right.
Generally, in countries that have abolished the death penalty, public opinion has never demanded a reintroduction of capital punishment, because citizens realize that its abolition changes nothing in their daily lives. Without the death penalty, Taiwan will only be a more just and rights-respecting country.