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Human Rights

Civil Society Members Replace UN in Taiwan Review

TAIPEI, Mar 8 2013 (IPS) - The just-completed review of Taiwan’s initial state human rights report offers a new model featuring direct involvement by civil society organisations in examining compliance with international rights covenants.

From Feb. 25 through Mar. 1 in Taipei City, a group of 10 independent international experts reviewed Taiwan’s initial human rights report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that Taiwan’s national legislature approved and President Ma Ying-jeou ratified in March 2009.

Since Taiwan has been excluded from the United Nations since October 1971, the ratified treaties could not be deposited with the UN Secretariat, but were directly incorporated into Taiwan domestic law through an ‘implementation act’ which took effect Dec. 10, 2009.

In line with the Implementation Act, the government of Taiwan’s ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) conducted a review of the legal code for compliance with the covenants and drafted the country’s first official state human rights report, which was published in April 2012.

Since Taiwan could not submit the report for review by the two UN human rights commissions responsible for monitoring implementation of the ICCPR and ICESCR, the official Presidential Human Rights Advisory Council (PHRAC) accepted a proposal of civil society organisations and invited 10 prominent international human rights experts to review the government’s State Report.

Manfred Nowak, professor of law and human rights at the University of Vienna and former UN special rapporteur on torture, led the review of the ICCPR. Eibe Riedel, chairman of the board of trustees of the German Institute for Human Rights and former vice-chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, headed the five-person subgroup for the ICESCR.

In the months leading up to the review, the PHRAC and the Ministry of Justice, which acted as secretariat for the review, translated into English the initial State Report and responses to “lists of issues” filed by the 10 international experts on the ICCPR and the ICESCR.

During the same period, Covenants Watch, a coalition of NGOs concerned with monitoring the treaties, drafted a ‘parallel report’ in May 2012, translated an updated parallel report into English in November 2012 and coordinated alternative replies to the list of issues by Taiwanese NGOs submitted to the experts Feb. 22.

After arriving in Taipei Feb. 24, the 10 experts held three days of discussions with government agencies, often represented at the vice-ministerial level, and met separately with NGOs in both formal and informal sessions before taking a day to write their conclusions Feb. 28. They issued their “conclusions and recommendations” at a news conference held at the Ministry of Justice Mar. 1.

Following the review, Nowak said the panel had been impressed by the detail of government responses and had been “deeply impressed” by the vitality of Taiwan’s civil society organisations.

Speaking at the Mar. 1 news conference, Nowak said it was “unique that a non-UN member has been willing to ratify and accept the two most important international human rights treaties, incorporate them into domestic law and accept review by independent international experts.”

Theo van Boven, honorary professor of international law at the University of Maastricht and former UN rapporteur on torture, who was one of the 10 experts, told IPS that “the aspect of the process in Taiwan of being able to face reality and meet many persons directly has an extra and worthwhile dimension and we wonder whether this can become a model for monitoring exercises in other countries.”

Speaking at a news conference held by NGOs Mar. 2, Covenants Watch convenor Kao Yung-cheng stated that “without the information provided by NGOs, the experts would have had difficulty finding out the realities of Taiwan’s human rights situation, and the review would have degenerated into a mere public relations exercise.”

Speaking at the same event, Huang Song-lih, professor of public health at Taipei’s National Yang Ming University and a member of a seven-person coordination committee under the PHRAC added that “one special aspect about this review is the fact that our voices have been heard by international experts during the past week more than we have been listened to by the government over the past five years.”

“UN reviews of such covenants are conducted in either Geneva or New York with a handful of government officials of the country under review and no formal sessions with NGOs, who have to engage in ‘guerrilla lobbying’ to be heard,” Danthong Breen, a human rights defender with Thailand’s Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) told IPS.

On Mar. 1, Nowak and Riedel announced more than 40 concrete recommendations, including calls for the Taiwan government to quickly set up “an independent national human rights commission,” ratify the other core UN human rights covenants, intensify training regarding the application of the covenants for judges, prosecutors, police and prison administrators, restore a moratorium on the implementation of death sentences, review the controversial Urban Renewal Act and stop forced evictions unless alternative housing is provided.”

The international experts noted that “as a result of the Implementation Act, the provisions of the two covenants are part of Taiwanese law and prevail over inconsistent domestic laws other than the Constitution.”

Amnesty International East Asia director Rosann Rife later told IPS that “the most important point confirmed by the government is that the position of the two covenants is higher than domestic law except only for the Constitution and therefore that when contradictions exist between domestic law and the covenants, the latter should take precedence.”

Saying that the most serious problem was Taiwan’s continued use of the death penalty, Nowak declared that the experts “strongly recommend that the government of Taiwan intensify efforts towards abolition of capital punishment and as a first and decisive step immediately introduce a moratorium on executions in accordance with the recommendations of the UN General Assembly.”

The experts also concluded that the provision of Article 6 (4) of the ICCPR that anyone sentenced to death has the right to seek pardon or commutation “seems to have been violated in all 15 cases of executions carried out in Taiwan during the past three years.”

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