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Canada, Taiwan and Beyond: Playing Our Part in the Human Rights Struggle

Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada


Remarks delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Taiwanese Human Rights Association of Canada Toronto, March 24, 2013 What a pleasure to be with you this evening. Michael has been diligently and kindly inviting me to join you for your annual meeting for several years now; and I am so delighted that this year it has worked out. And how fabulous to be here with other longstanding allies who share Amnesty Internationals concerns about the state of human rights in China, in North Korea and in Canada. It is particularly wonderful also to see the AI/THRAC connection come to life through our own very energetic Amnesty activist, Nikki Lin; who is of course also a member of your Board. Finally, it is an honour that we have with us tonight former MP Roland de Corbeille, who worked hard for human rights within the Canadian Parliament for a decade; including actively pressing for adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights. Im first and foremost glad to be here because I know it is going to bolster my own resolve and energy. Anytime I have an opportunity to spend time with a group that is firmly and clearly dedicated to advancing our shared global human rights responsibilities; be it with respect to a particular human rights topic or theme or as is the case with THRAC the human rights situation in a particular country; it is so very heartening. Because that is what the worldwide struggle for human rights is all about: all of us doing our part, refusing to stay silent, speaking out and doing so, whenever we can, together. Because that sense of joining up, of struggling together, is what is at the very heart of Amnesty International. From the very beginning, in fact going back to May 1961, more than century ago.
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Alex Neve

A British lawyer, Peter Benenson, learned of the arrest and imprisonment of 2 university students in Portugal. Portugal in 1961 was not Portugal today. The country was ruled by a cruel military government. These 2 students had dared stand up in a taverna in Lisbon. And raise their glasses of wine in a toast to freedom. And they were arrested by military police for doing so. They were brought before a military tribunal for doing so. And they were sentenced to prison terms of 5 and 7 years for doing so. For raising a toast to freedom. Peter Benenson was outraged. But what was so crucial, so visionary is that he was certain that many people hundreds, thousands, maybe millions would share that same outrage. And he was determined to find a way to gather that shared, collective outrage and turn it into a force for change. A force for justice. That still speaks to Amnesty International 51 years later. I would say it speaks to what brings you together as the THRAC. And it is what brings me as Amnesty, and you as the THRAC together tonight. Because it is together that we make a difference. In fact, very often, faced with seemingly insurmountable walls of injustice and abuse; joining together is the only way to make a difference. So thank you for the opportunity to be here together with you. What is of course also so very powerful and moving for me this evening is to have the honour of having my words translated to you by Columbus Leo, who more than twenty years ago was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience because of our concern that he had be imprisoned solely because he advocated Taiwan independence, a clear violation of his rights. I understand his case was also the spark that led to THRAC being established to succeed what had been the Formosan Human Rights Committee. I was so interested to learn that the Formosan Committee goes back to 1964, meaning that in some ways you and your efforts are only a few years younger than Amnesty. Columbus, it truly is humbling that it is you passing on my words tonight. I am by no means even close to being an expert on the remarkable and important struggle for stronger human rights protection in Taiwan that you have been engaged in - I expect for some of you, for at least the five decades that Amnesty has been around, and beyond. You are the experts.

In my remarks this evening, however, I will share some reflections and observations about current challenges but also notable achievements when it comes to upholding human rights in Taiwan. What I want to do as well is use some of those observations as jumping off points to draw a line back here to where we assemble this evening, Canada. And I might surprise you here, because Id like to point to some recent initiatives taken in Taiwan that could very usefully be taken up by our governments in Canada as part of the continuing imperative of strengthening human rights protection here.

Taiwan Human Rights Review


The timing of our meeting couldnt be better because, as many or perhaps all of you will know, Taiwan has, over the course of the last four weeks, been through a remarkable and precedent-setting international human rights exercise. Though Taiwan is not able to formally sign on to UN human rights treaties because it is not a member of the UN, the country has taken some admirable steps to nonetheless endorse and even incorporate into Taiwanese law the provisions of some of the key UN treaties. In particular the 2 overarching UN Covenants, one dealing with Civil and Political Rights such as torture, free expression and fair trials, and the other dealing with Economic, Social and Cultural Rights such as education, health care and housing have been embraced and folded into Taiwanese law through an Implementation Act. Similarly the government has accepted the provisions of the UNs Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. In a world where states that are members of the UN increasingly look for ways to avoid binding themselves to UN standards and ducking and responsibility for compliance to see this voluntary endorsement of three treaties, backed up by legislation, is truly heartening. All the more so, however, is that Taiwan went further and has just wrapped up what was, again, a voluntary review of its compliance with the two Covenants by an impressive team of highly-respected international human rights experts, many of whom have served or continue to serve in a variety of official and very senior UN human rights roles. Again this was all the more heartening given the number of governments who are obliged to subject themselves to reviews of that nature but thumb their noses at the UN expert by not submitting reports and not showing up for review sessions.
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In fact, I cant help but note that three of Canadas mandated reviews, dealing with racial discrimination, torture and the rights of children, have occurred during the last year and unfortunately Canada didnt exhibit the same welcoming spirit as Taiwan. Instead the government was sharply critical of the reviews and publicly rebuked the UN for taking time to scrutinize a country like Canada rather than concentrating on countries with worse records. I wasnt involved obviously, but I have had a chance to review some of the documents that both went into and come out of the review, including a very impressive submission from a coalition of Taiwanese civil society groups, and the final report, in UN-speak called Concluding Observations, prepared by the ten experts. It provides an excellent overview and report card as to some of the achievements and certainly the current challenges and shortcomings in Taiwans human rights struggle. If you havent had a chance yet to review the Concluding Observations prepared by the experts I do urge you to do so as I think it provides a tremendously useful framework to guide future advocacy for improved human rights protection in the country. They have lauded Taiwans voluntary acceptance of three key human rights treaties and urged that the government go further and take on board all of the major UN human rights instruments, including treaties dealing with children, people living with disabilities, torture, and migrant workers, as well as the recent Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which some of you may know Canada very belatedly and disgracefully reluctantly endorsed in 2010, 3 years after it had been adopted by the UN; after a number of years of disgraceful opposition by the Canadian government). By the way there are a number of the UN treaties that the experts are encouraging Taiwan take on which have not yet been ratified by Canada, including those dealing with migrant workers and enforced disappearances. The Experts were certainly impressed with the Implementation Act, which is intended to ensure that the easy step of endorsing the UN treaties actually leads to concrete measures to back that up, embedded in Taiwanese law. At the same time they noted ways in which that needs to be strengthened with further law reform, especially when it comes to economic, social and cultural rights; and the importance of developing accompanying training programs, particularly for judges and for government officials.
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Similarly, at the level of the big picture, the experts have called on Taiwan to establish a national human rights commission and, stemming from that, to develop a National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. Canada has the former in fact we have a national human rights commission as well as commissions in every province and territory. But we dont have a National Action Plan, and very usefully could benefit from one. The range of actual human rights topics covered in the review is impressive; and as you have read through it I am sure you have noted many issues and cases that have figured prominently in the Associations own campaigning in recent years. Certainly it includes issues that Amnesty has reported on or at least followed with interest and concern.

Death Penalty
Top of the list for us would certainly have to include mounting concerns that Taiwan is headed in the wrong direction when it comes to executions and the death penalty. Taiwans continued use of the death penalty has been at the centre of AIs campaigning in recent years. Worldwide, without exception, the trend we have started to say, the unstoppable and irreversible momentum, is towards abolition of the death penalty. Just last week, in fact, we celebrated the announcement from the US state of Maryland, making it the 6th US state in the last 6 six years to say no to the death penalty. Sadly Taiwan has stood firm. In 2011 it was one of only 20 countries in the world to carry out executions a rather exclusive club, and certainly not one that any nation should be aspiring to join. In fact it is rather notoriously an issue that links Taiwans human rights record with that of the Peoples Republic of China, which continues to the worlds most prolific executioner. There had then been some promising signals from the government that it was seriously considering joining the abolition club. But then to our great dismay, completely betraying any sense that those statements were offered in good faith, just over 3 months ago on December 20th six men were executed. Added to the concern is that there continue to be shortcomings about how the death penalty is imposed in the country, including no procedure for seeking a pardon or commutation of the death sentence; and the cruel practice of giving no notification to families before an execution, instead family members are simply informed after the fact and told to come and recover the body. There also continue to be concerns about the quality and reliability of many convictions, particularly given concerns, which have been confirmed by court rulings, that some convictions in death penalty
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cases have been based on confessions obtained through, at a minimum, duress; and quite possibly torture. The experts have again put this in front of the Taiwanese government and have called on the country to move immediately towards abolition. As a first step they urge Taiwan to take guidance from an important UN General Assembly Resolution, passed four times in the last six years, calling on states to declare a moratorium on executions. Notably, in the press conference releasing their recommendations, one of the most senior experts involved in this recent review highlighted these concerns about the death penalty as perhaps the most serious and pressing in their report. Amnesty was also very pleased to see substantial sections in the report dealing with a range of concerns about safeguarding the rights of Indigenous peoples, including a number of concerns about proper recognition and protection of their land rights. That includes some urgent concerns related to possible disposal of nuclear waste on Indigenous lands; and the importance of adopting measures that will ensure that development projects do not go ahead while claims to Indigenous lands are still in the process of being examined and recognized. That certainly sounds very familiar to a Canadian audience. The experts highlight as well an issue that has rapidly become of serious concern, certainly noted by Amnesty International and that is the fear that freedom of expression will be increasingly undermined and imperiled in the face of growing concentration of media ownership in the country, particularly in the face of takeovers of important Taiwanese television and newspaper outlets by just one company, Want Want China Times Group; but other concerns about increasing monopolization within Taiwanese media. T he experts call on the government to do two things in this regard: first, to block any media mergers or acquisitions that would put dissemination of public information in the hands of only a few entities; and second, enact a new comprehensive law that will protect diversity within the media and be grounded in recognition of the right to freedom of expression.

Chen Shui-bian
I know that this audience will be very interested to know whether the experts commented on the case of former president Chen Shui-bian. They did. And while it is a brief one sentence reference I would say that is particularly
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notable because on my review of their Concluding Observations I did not readily note any other individual case that was taken up in this way. The report is very much about wider issues of law reform, policy development, education and training. Here is what they have said, verbatim: The Experts also appeal to the Government of Taiwan on humanitarian grounds to take appropriate action in relation to the serious health problems of former President Chen Shuibian. There is rising awareness and concern about the former presidents health and the harsh prison conditions in which he has been held. A growing list of US Senators have spoken out. The influential Economist magazine had a recent very poignant article, laying out his health concerns. And I understand there are more and more voices speaking out inside Taiwan as well. Perhaps this additional prodding from the group of international human rights experts will finally push the government to take action. Amnesty International has not adopted the former president as a former prisoner of conscience. To do so we would have to convince ourselves that the charges and conviction of corruption are entirely without merit and that his arrest and sentencing is instead based solely on the grounds of his political views. We have not been able to reach that conclusion. We do, however, share these concerns about his deteriorating health, and certainly hope that the government will act upon this recommendation from the international experts. On and on goes the list of issues covered in the report. I dont have time to touch on the rest: administration of justice; equality rights for transgendered individuals; inadequate protection of the rights of migrant workers; discrimination in setting a lower minimum age for marriage for girls, at 16, than for boys, at 18; the repeal of provisions requiring women to obtain the consent of her husband or other relatives before obtaining an abortion; the impact that corporations have on human rights; and greater efforts to ensure accountability and reparations for the massive human rights violations that occurred during the years of martial law. That is just a short sample of some of the other issues covered in the report. So there is a lot in there for the Taiwanese government, Taiwanese human rights and civil society groups and certainly for the people of Taiwan.

Lessons for Canada


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I was very much struck, however, by the fact that there is also a great deal in there for the Canadian government, Canadian human rights, civil society groups and certainly for the people of Canada. What I mean is this. I was very struck as I read through the Concluding Observations that there were various passages, in fact sometimes entire paragraphs, that could be cut and pasted into a set of Concluding Observations dealing with Canadas human rights record. I note that not out of a sense of comparing, let alone equating, the human rights situation in Canada with that of Taiwan. That is not at all fruitful. And in fact there is no reliable measurement to be used to rank and compare one country to another. But I think it is of note in highlighting that we face some similar challenges and should, therefore, do more to ensure that we foster common cause and collaboration in responding. That is certainly the case when it comes to the crucial step of actually implementing international human rights obligations that have been assumed, voluntarily in Taiwans case and by treaty ratification with Canada. Implementation is of course what it is all about. And Canada has a woeful record here. I couldnt help but smile when I read in these reports that Taiwan has an Implementation Act for the 2 UN Covenants. Just a few months ago Amnesty International and sixty other human rights and Indigenous peoples organizations in Canada launched a public call for Canada to adopt what we have called an International Human Rights Implementation Act. Similarly we see the call from the Experts for Taiwan to develop a National Plan of Action for Human Rights. There are a growing number of crucial human rights issues in Canada where that is precisely the key recommendation in front of Canada: develop a National Plan of Action, to deal with violence against Indigenous women, to deal with poverty, to deal with food insecurity, to deal with homelessness. Those are at an overarching level. Im struck as well, though, about the similarity when it comes to specific concerns: land rights and development projects in the lands and territories of Indigenous peoples

failure to have clear provisions in domestic law that protect and enforce economic, social and cultural rights exclusion of migrant workers from key labour standards and other protections weak provisions dealing with the human rights impact of corporations

ongoing worries that media concentration imperils freedom of expression employment related discrimination and wage gaps experienced by women. What does this mean practically and concretely? Im not suggesting we mount some sort of joint Canadian/Taiwanese human rights campaign. I cant see that resonating with the public in either country, let alone with the Taiwanese and Canadian governments. But I do think it is something for us to be very alive to in our efforts as we think about campaigning strategies. Drawing the connections between issues and between countries does draw in people in different ways. It opens up interesting ideas for partnerships: could there, for example, be room for some interesting collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations with respect to Indigenous peoples issues, collaboration that flows in both directions across the Pacific? And I do think there is some learning we can do. I certainly want to get my hands on a copy of Taiwans Implementation Act; and we might think about what opportunities there are to encourage the Canadian Human Rights Commission to offer guidance and assistance to the government with regard to the recommendation about establishing a national human rights commission. They do so with other countries.

Working Together
At the end of the day, though, what it probably most powerfully reminds us is that crucial word I highlighted at the beginning, that shaped Amnesty Internationals founding - Together. We see so very powerfully how we are all in this together. The rights at stake are ours, together. The vulnerability to violations and abuse is again something we face, together. But so to is the responsibility, ability and power to respond, challenge, and take action
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something we share, together. That certainly was the case when Columbus rights were violated twenty years ago. It remains the case today. We do of course also continue to stand together and find common cause with respect to the ongoing serious human rights situation in China, including through our membership jointly, here in Toronto, in the China Rights Network. The people of Tibet, the Uyghur people, democracy and human rights activists, Falun Gong practitioners, migrant workers, people facing the death penalty and torture, and many more --- the individuals and communities in China who face daily, grave human rights violations are many. It is so imperative that we stand together, confronting those abuses. And in particular from here in Canada that we press and press harder for Canada to put human rights at the centre of dealings with China, rather than the disheartening approach weve seen for years which puts trade and investment in the front seat, and leaves human rights far behind. We will continue to stand together, united in that demand. And how crucial that we work together as well to press for the decades long human rights crisis in North Korea to be addressed. We have seen a remarkable step forward with the long overdue decision this month from the UN Human Rights Council to initiate a commission of inquiry to look into the countrys human rights situation. Groups like Kyung Lees Council for Human Rights in North Korea (so good he is with us tonight) have been at the centre of that campaign. We must continue to stand with his group and with the people of North Korea. It is a human rights situation about which world leaders, including our own, have long expressed concern and opposition but, until now, have failed to take any concrete action to address it. Much for us to do together. I thank you for the opportunity to be with you together tonight.

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