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Taiwan’s legislators hold the key to abolition as new research reveals the majority favour an end to capital punishment

  • News
  • 24 Feb 2022

A new study commissioned by The Death Penalty Project and The Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) significantly reveals that the majority of those interviewed are in favour of abolishing capital punishment. Independently conducted research, undertaken by academics from the University of Oxford and Soochow University, Taipei, sought to explore how Taiwan’s legislators feel about the prospect of abolition.

The risk of wrongful convictions, the abuse of human rights and a recognition that the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect, were the primary reasons cited for supporting abolition. Additionally, a majority of legislators interviewed expressed fairly low levels of trust in the Taiwanese criminal justice system, with doubts raised over its ability to offer adequate safeguards to individuals facing capital trials.

Key findings:

  • 61% of legislators interviewed are in favour of abolishing the death penalty
  • 39% of legislators interviewed are in favour of retaining the death penalty, but only one legislator was strongly in favour
  • 71% of retentionists and 65% of abolitionists asserted that wrongful convictions ‘sometimes’ occurred
  • Only 11% of legislators interviewed thought that wrongful convictions ‘rarely’ occur
  • All legislators interviewed expressed a preference for social justice measures, such as poverty reduction, over increased executions when asked to rank a range of policies aimed at reducing violent crime

The research comes at a significant time, as 2021 saw Taiwan record no executions or new death sentences. Having adopted the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR) into its domestic law in 2009, the country has voluntarily agreed to uphold Article 6 of the ICCPR, which concludes with the important statement that ‘[n]othing in this article shall be invoked to delay or prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant’. Taiwan must therefore be ‘on an irrevocable path to abolition’, yet there are currently 38 people on death row and the country has carried out several executions in recent years, with the last in 2020.

A belief that the majority of the public supports the death penalty remains a central argument for retention, not only in Taiwan, but in many of the states that continue to apply the punishment. To challenge this assumption, previous research published by The Death Penalty Project and TAEDP on public attitudes to capital punishment in Taiwan, was introduced to the legislators during the interviews. The research demonstrated a significant lack of knowledge about the death penalty – when participants were presented with four factual questions about the death penalty, only four out of over 2,000 people knew the answers to all four questions. Over half (55%) did not know the answers to any. The research also demonstrated that when given more information on realistic cases, public support for the death penalty falls dramatically. Overall, the research revealed that people in Taiwan are not firmly opposed to abolition but are not sufficiently knowledgeable to engage fully with the subject.

Having been presented with the findings from the public opinion research, legislators were asked again for their views on abolition and their support for abolition increased by 20%.

  • Support for abolition rose from 61% to 81%, with 21% strongly in favour
  • Support for retention fell from 39% to 19%, with no one expressing strong support

Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project said:

“The findings from this important study show that legislators in Taiwan are themselves far more open to abolition than previously believed. A barrier to reform has been the persisting belief that the public overwhelmingly support the death penalty, but when research on public attitudes was considered by legislators demonstrating that the Taiwanese public are in fact open to a change in policy, we saw their own openness to abolition increase. Empirical research that has been conducted in Taiwan in recent years, including this study of legislators – the first of its kind – has the power to breakdown perceived obstacles to change and inform the conversation on how Taiwan can end this archaic practice and fulfil its international obligations under the ICCPR. Abolition of the death penalty would further strengthen Taiwan’s position as an emerging model for democracy and human rights in the region and cement it’s international reputation and standing with other like-minded democracies.”

Hsinyi Lin, Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty said:

“The data collected from these interviews has provided an invaluable point of reference on the opinions of legislators in Taiwan. In 2021, there were no executions or death penalty convictions which resulted in many questions being raised as to whether the Taiwanese government had already abolished the death penalty in practice. For us at the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty, we believe that Taiwan still has a long way to go before it can be called ‘abolitionist’ by any international standards – the UN categorises states as abolitionist de facto when no executions have been carried out for at least 10 years or when an official moratorium has been issued. This type of rigorous research provides us with a crucial opportunity to engage with the government, the public and legislators to the benefit of our mutual education and understanding of the issues which surround the death penalty and the necessity of its abolition. With the continuation of this dialogue, we believe that capital punishment will one day be abolished.”

Notes to editors

The report: Legislators’ Opinions on the Death Penalty in Taiwan

The report was commissioned by The Death Penalty Project in partnership with the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty. It was written by Professor Carolyn Hoyle, at the University of Oxford and Professor Shiow-duan Hawang at Soochow University, Taipei.

All of Taiwan’s 113 legislators were invited to participate, with a total of 38 agreeing to take part in the research, which was conducted through individual face-to-face interviews. The interviews sought to reveal knowledge about the current administration of the criminal justice system, views on capital punishment, as well as openness to abolition.

The study is the fourth in a series of collaboration between The Death Penalty Project and the TAEDP which focuses on the death penalty in Taiwan.

Death Penalty Project

The Death Penalty Project (DPP) is a legal action NGO with special consultative status before the United Nations Economic and Social Council. For more than three decades, the DPP has worked to protect the rights of those facing the death penalty.

Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty

Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) is a coalition of Taiwanese abolitionist groups, non-governmental organisations and research institutes. The Alliance, formed in 2003, is the first coalition in Taiwan that advocates for the abolition of the death penalty and promotes reform of Taiwan’s penal system.

Carolyn Hoyle

Professor Carolyn Hoyle has been at the University of Oxford Centre for Criminology since 1991 and was Centre Director from 2012-17. She is Director of the Oxford Death Penalty Research Unit, and co-author of the leading international study on the death penalty, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, the last edition of which was published in 2015 by Oxford University Press.

Shiow-duan Hawang

Dr Shiow-duan Hawang is Distinguished Professor of the Department of Political Science at Soochow University, Taipei, Taiwan, and, since 1 August 2016, has been Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at the university.

Death penalty in Taiwan

The death penalty can be imposed for a number of serious crimes in Taiwan including murder, treason, drug trafficking and terrorism. Executions in Taiwan are typically carried out by shooting – prisoners are sedated, laid face-down and then shot through the heart. Currently, there are at least 38 people on death row. The last execution was carried out in 2020.

Death penalty around the world

Today, 109 of the 193 UN member states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, with a further 8 countries having abolished the death penalty for ordinary offences. Currently 49 countries are regarded as abolitionist de facto, having not carried out an execution within the past 10 years, and only 27 UN member states are active retentionists.

The vast majority of executions are undertaken by a small subset of nations: at least 88% of global executions in 2020 occurred in, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Thousands of executions are thought to be carried out in China each year, but this information continues to be kept a state secret and is unverified.

This press release is also available in Chinese here.

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