Originally published 10 February 2023 in the Taipei Times.
Taiwanese are rightfully proud that, despite the nation’s challenging regional environment, their country is a beacon of liberal, democratic values, and the just application of the rule of law.
In 2016, the Washington Post commented that Taiwan’s national elections that year had “cemented this island’s standing as one of Asia’s most progressive and tolerant places.”
Not only had Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) become Taiwan’s first female president, women had won almost one-third of its legislative seats. Indigenous communities were also well represented, in sharp contrast to some other democracies, such as Australia and New Zealand.
Since then, Taiwan has become the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage.
Taiwan’s progress is all the more noteworthy when one considers the abysmal human rights record of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The era of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has seen unprecedented levels of surveillance of ordinary citizens, the genocide of the Uighurs and the crushing of political freedoms in Hong Kong, in flagrant disregard of the treaty by which Britain handed it over to PRC control in 1997.
However, there remains one issue on which Taiwan lags much of the rest of the democratic world — its retention and continued use of the death penalty.
Having conducted original research in Taiwan in this field, we have come to Taipei this week to engage with politicians, policymakers and Taiwan’s free media. We hope to encourage a debate over abolition that is already well underway, thanks in large part to the efforts of our partner organization, the Taiwan Alliance Against the Death Penalty (TAEDP), and to present evidence and arguments to show why this ultimate penal sanction should no longer be administered.
The trend globally is only in one direction — toward abolition. Of the world’s 198 countries, only 29, Taiwan included, have executed a prisoner in the past 10 years. A total of 46 countries are what the UN calls “abolitionist de facto,” meaning no one there has been executed in a decade or more.
The other 123 countries have abolished the death penalty in law and more add themselves to this list almost every year. Last year, three developing nations from sub-Saharan Africa did so: Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Zambia. The number of US states that retain capital punishment has also fallen — from 38 at the turn of the century to 27 now — and in those that maintain the death penalty, executions have diminished in number, along with public support.
The same can be said of Taiwan. Since Tsai assumed office, there have been just two executions, as opposed to 33 in the eight years of the previous administration.
As for the PRC, its number of executions is a state secret, but human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, believe that China’s annual total remains the world’s highest, and runs to thousands every year.
The time is ripe for Taiwan to do the right thing and abolish capital punishment. Moreover, TAEDP’s joint research suggests that Taiwanese support for the death penalty is weak, and that the government could take this step without provoking an inflamed public reaction.
In 2019, we published a study revealing alarming failings in Taiwan’s criminal justice system, and highlighted the real risk that innocent people could be killed by the state owing to evidential or procedural flaws. We also conducted a survey which found that 71 percent of Taiwanese would not oppose abolition of the death penalty if it were replaced by life imprisonment without parole. Moreover, respondents’ initial support for capital punishment fell dramatically when they were informed about the risk of wrongful convictions.
The following year, the University of Oxford and Soochow University conducted a further study examining the views of Taiwan’s legislators. Remarkably, 61 percent of those interviewed personally supported abolition of the death penalty, and of the 39 percent against, only one individual felt strongly that Taiwan should keep capital punishment.
Many legislators were aware of the risk of wrongful convictions and of the concerns raised in our 2019 report. Indeed, most said they believed wrongful convictions do sometimes occur.
Social justice measures such as poverty reduction, mental health interventions and improved moral education of young people were preferred over capital punishment by all legislators when they were asked to rank the most effective policies to reduce serious crime. Just one individual chose “more executions.”
However, when they were first interviewed, most of the legislators had assumed that public opinion was still strongly in favor of retention. When they were shown the results of our 2019 study suggesting that this was mistaken, their support for abolition jumped from 61 to 81 percent, an overwhelming majority.
Reflecting its broader, liberal stance, Taiwan has already taken the first legal step toward abolition by incorporating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into its domestic law. This obliges it “not to delay” abolition.
The US Supreme Court sometimes makes decisions on the basis of what is termed “evolving standards of decency.” It is a concept applicable internationally. For example, at the start of this century, no country had legally recognized same-sex marriage. Now 30 do, mostly advanced nations in Europe and North America, and of course, Taiwan.
A century ago, very few countries had abolished the death penalty, although Venezuela became the first to do so as far back as 1863.
With only 17 percent of the world’s nations continuing to sentence prisoners to death and, sometimes, to execute them, Taiwan’s retention of capital punishment looks increasingly like an aberration, a deviation from its admirable, progressive path.
Having already recognized the benefits of adhering to international human rights standards, abolition of the death penalty would further enhance Taiwan’s reputation and standing with like-minded democracies.
The time is ripe for Taiwan to do the right thing and abolish capital punishment.
Carolyn Hoyle is a professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit. Saul Lehrfreund is Co- Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project and a visiting professor of law at the University of Reading.