Taiwan, UN Membership and Human Rights Accountability: More than a Diplomatic Win

Written by Bonny Ling.

Image credit: Human Rights Council, Geneva by GPA Photo Archive/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1993, President Lee Teng-Hui announced that Taiwan would seek UN membership, marking the start of a long campaign to re-join the UN since General Assembly Resolution 2758 of 1971, a watershed that shifted recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the legitimate representation of China to the UN.  

From 1993 to 2007, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies sponsored a draft resolution for the General Assembly to review and revoke Resolution 2758 at its annual gathering of world leaders. Closely watched in Taiwan, the draft resolution was routinely rejected at agenda-setting.

Since 2008, the government’s UN strategy changed track. Instead of focusing on revoking Resolution 2758, Taiwan made its case for UN participation based on its respect for international human rights. It is an existential argument that harks back to the founding of the post-war international system, where the UN Charter affirms the centrality of human rights for international peace and security.

Naturally, much of Taiwan’s human rights diplomacy does not take place in a vacuum. By emphasising that it fully respects international human rights, Taiwan draws attention to China’s human rights situation. These tenors are intensified during a global pandemic. What Taiwan has done right concerning the fundamental freedoms of information, expression and opinion—so crucial for the dissemination of public health information—serves as a stark counter to where China has failed.

Taiwan and Extrajudicial Killing

Nevertheless, Taiwan continues to be dogged by cases of extrajudicial killing, violating the fundamental human right to life, liberty, and security of person. A recent prominent case is the killing of a young Vietnamese migrant worker, Nguyen Quoc Phi, in August 2017 by a novice police officer in Hsinchu. The killing of Nguyen, immortalised in the two Taiwanese documentaries of the same name “Nine Shots” by Su Che-hsien and Tsai Tsung-lung, was marked by police brutality. The title is a reference to the number of bullets fired by the police officer in mere 12 seconds, killing an unarmed and unclothed Nguyen. In July 2019, the court of first instance found the police officer guilty of causing Nguyen’s death by negligence and sentenced him to eight months of imprisonment, with a three-year suspension period.

Reports of Violence at Sea

This year, another case of extrajudicial killing again shocks the conscious and raises severe concerns of accountability and bringing those responsible to justice. Except for this time, the case makes more waves abroad than in domestic circles because it occurred on a Taiwanese fishing vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

On 3 March 2020, a fishery observer named Eritara Aati Kaierua from Kiribati was reported dead aboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel, Win Far No 636. Kaierua’s post-mortem revealed that he died of blunt brain trauma. He was reportedly found with an open logbook of fish catches next to his body on his cabin floor. Kiribati authorities are investigating and treating his death as a homicide.

Kaierua was a member of a special profession of fishery observers worldwide. They monitor and document the fish caught by vessels and ensure the catch is within sustainability limits. Observers live aboard ships, but their job can put them at fundamental odds with the crew if the ship is engaged in illegal fishing.

Two international civil society organisations, Greenpeace USA and the Association for Professional Observers, have since utilised a particular UN human rights procedure to call on the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. They have called on Mary Lawlor, to ensure a proper and thorough investigation into Kaierua’s death and for his family to receive full and effective remedies.

Limited Effectiveness

Win Far No 636 is a Taiwanese boat and under Taiwanese jurisdiction and supervision of the Fisheries Agency of Taiwan. The peculiarities of Taiwan’s status in the international system, however, limits the channels available to pursue human rights accountability through the intricate UN human rights system.  

The UN Special Rapporteurs, falling under the special procedure mandates of the Human Rights Council, have long been celebrated as a unique feature of the international human rights system. These mandates are held by independent experts, who conduct country visits and act on individual cases by sending direct communications to governments.

They raise human rights awareness and contribute to the development of human rights standards. As such, the Special Rapporteurs play an essential role in the protection of human rights worldwide. It is, however, impossible for activities such as country visits and intervention on specific cases by Special Rapporteurs to take place for Taiwan while it remains outside the UN.

Hurdles to Human Rights Accountability

The investigation into Kaierua’s killing faces many hurdles, not least because it took place far away in the Pacific and not on the familiar grounds of Hsinchu. Preliminary information, as is usually the case for conditions onboard vessels long at sea, is often patchy. Communication is restricted. Port visits are few in-between. These conditions can give rise to a climate of impunity on the vessel, leaving those on board with very few options to report abuse and seek help.

If we are without the additional attention that can be formally leveraged by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders on the Taiwanese government, then robust domestic pressure is even more critical to ensure a thorough investigation takes place. This would be an investigation with active cross-border criminal justice cooperation between Taiwanese and Kiribati authorities.

Sadly, there currently lacks a vibrant discussion in Taiwan on Kaierua’s death. Compared to Nguyen, coverage on Kaierua has been relatively muted. The recent spike in reporting came in July 2020 when the complaint was sent to the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Since then, this case has not generated the same level of attention in the aftermath of Nguyen’s killing, which brought to the fore issues of inequality and discrimination faced by migrant workers in Taiwan.

It is a missed opportunity if domestic discourses continue to treat Kaierua as an isolated crime and siloed from a string of cases of violence at sea involving Taiwanese-registered vessels or vessels with ties to Taiwan. Recent cases of extrajudicial killings at sea are serious blights on Taiwan’s international reputation. One recent example is the 2014 incident of a video that came to light, showing at least four unarmed men gunned down at sea by the crewmen aboard what was believed to be a Taiwanese vessel.

Last month, on 24 August 2020, Kaohsiung District Prosecutors Office stated that its own ongoing investigation shares the initial assessment that the boat was indeed Taiwanese-registered. The vessel’s captain was arrested when the ship docked in Kaohsiung, pending further investigation into the abhorrent killings that took place in 2014.

Human Rights Accountability

Another General Assembly session is underway: another reminder that Taiwan and its 23 million inhabitants are excluded. As the rhetoric of Taiwan’s international status intensifies during this time, it is crucial to take stock of what Taiwan has achieved in the area of democracy and human rights since the lifting of the martial law. The peaceful transition of power is a beacon of light in the collective rear-view mirror of a tumultuous historical chapter.

Beyond the clangs of diplomacy, however, the vision for the future of Taiwan needs to be based on an honest recognition that gaining UN membership is more than a diplomatic win. If one commits to human rights as being at the centre of Taiwan’s national ethos, finding Taiwan’s seat amidst this global community of nations will open additional, formal avenues established by the UN to advance the collective goals of human rights, peace and security.

These extra avenues, like the Special Procedures mandates, inevitably will bring uncomfortable truths of human rights abuses to light. Nonetheless, the ability to be a part of these formal international human rights mechanisms will help Taiwan to deliver on what matters most to victims of human rights violations and their families: accountability.

Bonny Ling, PhD, is an independent scholar and consultant legal analyst based in the UK, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking. She was formerly Program Director of the International Summer School, “Business and Human Rights: Interdisciplinary Challenges and Opportunities” and associated lecturer of law at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. She also has worked in the UN system and in international civil society. She writes on human rights, migrants, business responsibilities, and international law; see latest here on ASEAN and its work on migrant protection.

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