Victims without Perpetrators: Slovakia’s and Taiwan’s Lack of Retributive Justice

Written by Dominika Remžová.

Image Credit: 景美人權文化園區警備總司令部仁愛樓看守所外部, by 人人生來平等 via Wikimedia Commons, lisence CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite the recent 228 Incident commemoration, along with the latest exonerations of White Terror political victims, the lack of retributive justice from criminal trials or other perpetrator-focused measures remains the case in Taiwan. In fact, the legality of the only perpetrator-focused act related to the KMT’s party assets has been continually contested by the party, despite the ruling of the Council of Grand Justices that upheld the constitutionality of the act’s provisions. A similar lack of retributive justice occurred in another country with a recent authoritarian past, Slovakia. Here the only measure of retributive justice was the trial of a former head of the security forces Alojz Lorenc, which concluded with a 15-month suspended sentence, a mild ruling compared to the hefty sentences faced by political prisoners. 

Are the new regimes more likely to pursue retributive justice early after the transition, when the memories are vivid and perpetrators alive? Or will they pursue it later, when the passage of time diminishes the danger of societal polarisation? This is a significant question within debates on transitional justice. Both Slovakia and Taiwan pursued limited retributive justice only after the legislative change of the ruling parties under Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (1998-2006) and President Tsai Ing-wen (2016-), respectively. From the legislative elections in 1992 until – and including – the change of ruling parties, the predominant form remained victim-centred restorative justice. Thus, under Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar (1992-1998) and President Lee Teng-hui (1988-2000), there was a focus on property restitutions, financial reparations and victim rehabilitation. Dzurinda and Tsai, rather, focused on establishing transitional justice commissions, declassifing secret archives and revising history textbooks.

The lack of retribution is not surprising on a global scale, with retributive measures being less common than restorative ones. Yet, it is surprising when compared to Slovakia’s and Taiwan’s neighbours Czechia and South Korea. Both pursued more comprehensive retributive measures earlier on. What then caused the lack of an early pursuit of retributive justice in Slovakia and Taiwan? I argue that a significant role was played by contextual factors such as the authoritarian regime’s pre-history, nature of the regime and nature of transition, as well as the elite configuration, institutional design and citizen-party linkages under the new regime. 

Politics of the Present

In both countries, the former authoritarian elites stayed in power following the transition. Considering that these elites were to blame for the atrocities committed by the old regimes, such elite configuration was not conducive to the pursuit of retributive justice, especially since these elites dominated both the executive and legislative bodies. Lee was handpicked by Chiang Ching-kuo as his successor and re-elected by the public in the 1996 presidential election, whilst the KMT won majorities in the 1992, 1995 and 1998 Legislative Yuan elections. A similar situation occurred in Slovakia, where the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), led by a former communist-turned-nationalist, Mečiar, became the strongest Slovak party in the 1992 Czechoslovak federal election. Following the Velvet Divorce, the HZDS continued as the ruling party until 1998. Due to the strength of the former authoritarian elites, aspects of the newly formed institutions and citizen-party linkages were designed to benefit the old elites, whether through emphasising personalised appeals during early legislative elections in Slovakia or the strong executive in Taiwan.

Considering that good economic performance and rising living standards were a primary reason behind old regime public support, with significant population portions in both countries seeing the old regimes as legitimate at the time of transition, the worsening economic situation under the new regimes could have arguably led to the old elites losing power. Therefore, the old elites tried to emphasise an ethnocultural cleavage to divert attention away from the worsening economic situation, although in very different ways. The HZDS tried to create division between Czechs and Slovaks to push for Slovak independence, focusing on manufacturing an ethnic divide to rally public support for the party. In Taiwan, on the other hand, the ethnic divide between native Taiwanese and mainlanders had stronger historical precedent, with the formerly oppressed group of native Taiwanese constituting most potential voters under the new regime. In addition to continuing the process of Taiwanisation, Lee appealed for ethnic reconciliation, emphasising civic over ethnic nationalism. Nevertheless, ethnicity was politicised in both countries during the initial post-transition years, contributing to the old elites’ continuing strength and lack of retributive justice. 

Politics of the Past

In neither country was the opposition strong enough to direct the transition process alone, a scenario ideal for the pursuit of retributive justice. The new regime was established through negotiations between the old and new elites in Slovakia. In contrast, it was established by a pre-emptive transformation, led by the old elites, in Taiwan. Such transitions were possible due to the dominance of reformists within the old elites and a significant proportion of moderates within the new elites.

The nature of the authoritarian regime conditioned the continuing strength of the old elites during the transition process. It has been argued that the ideal scenario for the post-transition pursuit of retributive justice existed in highly repressive authoritarian regimes. These were established in industrialised societies with previous experience of both democracy and political pluralism. They were dominated by non-reformists, provided no space for the opposition to either emigrate or voice their dissent, and had a history of poor economic performance. Neither of these conditions applied unconditionally to either country, especially not in the later years of the authoritarian regimes. Whilst both regimes were highly repressive in the early stages under ideological Stalinisation in Slovakia and cultural sinicisation in Taiwan, the outright repression became less common in the later stages, which would be most prominent in the public’s memory at the time of transition. The later stages also saw a limited widening of space for voicing dissent. Following the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, the Slovak opposition not only faced less repression than their Czech counterparts but were even granted their fundamental demand for some level of federalisation. Apart from the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, the opposition in Taiwan also faced less stringent conditions under Chiang Ching-kuo than under his father Chiang Kai-shek, the former who initiated the process of liberalisation. Both regimes produced economic successes, with Taiwan pursuing growth with equity and attaining global recognition for its ‘Taiwan miracle.’

Whilst both countries experienced some form of elections and political pluralism during the periods preceding the communist and KMT dictatorships, neither had a highly industrialised society. In Slovakia, the authoritarian regime’s pre-history refers to the predominantly democratic period under the 1st Czechoslovak Republic. In the case of Taiwan, it refers to yet another authoritarian period under Japanese colonisation. Slovakia held frequent elections, and various political parties were established during this period. Yet, the democratic experience was concentrated more prominently in the Czech than in the Slovak part of the republic. Although Taiwanese people acquired some democratic experience once they were allowed to vote in municipal council elections, the experience came late and was very marginal. Political organisations such as the Taiwan Cultural Association were also established, but these never became official political parties. The conditions in neither Slovakia nor Taiwan were thus entirely conducive to retribution. 

So What? 

Transitional justice is an essential part of democratic consolidation and ethnic reconciliation. There is a lot more work to be done in both countries when it comes to the pre-democratic periods of communist and KMT dictatorship as well as the periods of clerical fascism and Japanese colonisation, with Jewish and indigenous victims still awaiting even basic measures of restorative justice. Although the pursuit of criminal trials becomes less likely once all victims and perpetrators pass away, some retributive measures such as the naming of perpetrators are possible with the passage of time and essential for the countries’ pursuit of truth and need to move forward. Even the high-profile cases of political murders in Taiwan, such as those of a mother and daughters of a prominent pro-democracy activist and former DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung, remain unsolved. Taiwan, therefore, continues to be the case of a country with “10 000 victims but not a single perpetrator.”

Dominika Remžová is a Master’s student of Taiwan Studies at SOAS. She is also working as a Junior Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) and Research Assistant at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS). 

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan


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