TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

There has been much discussion about the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice since it was passed in early December. The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation has come up with a Q&A to respond to the myths and controversies concerning the newly passed law and to help put transitional justice in its proper Taiwanese context.

 

1. Why does the transitional justice concerned in the Act only target the Kuomintang (KMT)? This is none other than political vendetta!

Transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their violations of the basic rights of the people and their abuse of state institutions and power. The KMT was the sole ruling party during the Martial Law period and where decision-making and discussion of many policies took place. It is difficult to undertake the project of Taiwan’s transitional justice and rectify the wrongs committed during the Martial Law period without making the party the target.

Post-democratization governments certainly are not immune to taking illegitimate actions that are against the principles of justice, but people living in a democratic society are more aptly equipped with rights guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by mechanisms such as separation of power and checks and balances. When their rights are violated, they have access to both institutional and non-institutional ways to demand a response from the government (appeal, court, petition or social protest).

What “transitional justice” deals with is the political persecution committed before democratization.

2. Taiwan’s transitional justice is purely a political scheme against waishengren and to de-Sinicize Taiwan?

In fact, according to statistical information derived from the number of people receiving state compensation, the percentage of waishengren political victims in the White Terror cases was actually a lot greater than the percentage of ethnic groups in Taiwan’s total population. The case of Shandong exiled students is an example that involved a large number of waishengren. Clearing up the history helps solve certain myths surrounding the ethnic divisions and antagonism. Due to its idiosyncratic history, Taiwan’s democratic transformation was intertwined with a process of change in people’s national identity; the two thereby have often been conflated but should actually be looked into with extra caution.

The core of transitional justice, however, is about how a society faces its history, about making those denying historical traumas and mistakes understand that it would come at a cost. Transitional justice is a task with concrete goals to achieve.

3. Chiang Kai-shek had made contributions to the country as well. Why can’t his contributions be displayed alongside his misdeeds? If not for him, Taiwan would have been taken over by the People’s Republic of China long ago and very likely be overwhelmed by the storm of the Cultural Revolution.

As said in the answer to the first question, transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their past violations, not to write biographies for historical figures. Those political parties and individuals who harbor special feelings for Chiang Kai-shek can continue their support for him.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric of “safeguarding Taiwan (against Chinese aggression)” cannot explain why Chiang perpetuated Martial Law rule even after his control over Taiwan (and offshore islands) was consolidated in the mid-1950s (after the Korean War) and why he targeted the communists, the tangwai/dangwai people and overseas Taiwanese independence activists as “three-in-one enemy” starting in the 1970s. “Protecting the island from falling under communist control” was a propaganda slogan for the ruler to rationalize his use of political repression and carrying out of comprehensive social surveillance during the Martial Law period.

4. The government has been compensating political victims since the 1990s. What else is to be done 30 years after Martial Law was lifted?

Bound by the National Security Act and Constitutional Interpretation No. 272, before the passage of the Act on Transitional Justice, the political victims, despite receiving compensation, were not cleared of their convictions and criminal records, seized properties were not returned, and the KMT archives during the years when the country was ruled by the party-state have not been made public. Even now, we still do not know exactly how many political victims there were during the White Terror. Why were they persecuted? Who should be held accountable? How extensive was the persecuting system? What, if any, have the persecutors done to redeem themselves? What was wrong with Martial Law and the constitutional institutions? The state has to face its own past deeds. Holding the repressive system accountable is much more than simply pointing fingers at Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo; a lot more needs to be done.

▶︎ See also: TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

Discovered in the 1990s, the Liuzhangli graveyard in Taipei was the burial ground for hundreds of White Terror victims. The cemetery was designated a municipal cultural landmark in 2015 (Photo: TATR).

5. The amendments to the Labor Standards Act have been stalled and same-sex marriage legalization (seemingly) mothballed; is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party pushing for transitional justice just to divert public attention?

What we need to do is to work together for the realization of social justice of various kinds rather than elbowing each other out. The passage of the Act on Transitional Justice does not mean that transitional justice has been achieved. The Transitional Justice Promotion Committee has to be overseen and kept from descending into formalism. We need to take this historical opportunity and build a bridge between the past and the future in our era.

6. Granted, the task of transitional justice should be done, but don’t we need to have a sense of proportion by first working hard on improving the economy?

Most of the living political victims are aged. This is probably the only time period in which we live alongside these people. When else but now are we to rectify the past wrongs for them and grant them their historical status? There are things that cannot be bought with money: lost youth, freedom and lives. They could have had a different life, if only Taiwanese society had been free from the decades-long suppression and suffocation. It’s hard to weigh the possibilities they had once owned for their worth, let alone against money.

7. Those political victims were not all innocent. Some of them were underground Chinese Communist Party members who were supposed to be executed.

No one would object to redressing the wrongful charges against the innocent, but the greatest challenge of transitional justice precisely lies in questioning the legitimacy and legality of the laws that the “criminals” had broken during the Martial Law era. How did the state violate the people’s basic rights and deprive the people of their rights under the pretext of maintaining social stability and national security via court-martial and laws? How do we draw the boundary between national security and protection of personal rights? This is a question in need of serious debate even in a democratic society. We can choose to forget and pretend nothing of the sort happened, or we can choose to face the history. Those interested in the debate can find a related extensive discussion on the website of the third constitutional court simulation (in Chinese) that was held in November, 2016.

8. Why are Indigenous peoples and “comfort women” not included in the Act?

Those who support the redressing of historical wrongs are supposed to also be in support of the restoring of justice for Indigenous people and for “comfort women.” Taking other countries’ cases as examples, these two groups deserve separate legislative bills for delicate and thorough handling of their demands, rather than being squeezed with other groups into the same piece of cloth.

The persecution that Indigenous people have been subjected to span different regimes, which requires a more comprehensive examination and solution that goes to the root of the problems stemming from political institutions and existing laws. If not, the same kind of persecution would only reappear in different forms. The issue of “comfort women,” on the other hand, requires the government to negotiate with the Japanese government and demand compensation and an apology.

It is hard to imagine these different forms of violence that require different routes for restoring justice could be dealt with by the same set of rules. Only through different legal and institutional frameworks can these issues be allowed more room for detailed and practical solutions to these complicated problems.

9. The constitutionality of the Act on Transitional Justice is in question?

Whether a law is unconstitutional is up to the grand justices to decide. Insofar as it has not been ruled unconstitutional, a law passed by the legislature is nevertheless effective.

Questions have been raised as to whether the jurisdiction assigned to the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee oversteps the jurisdiction of the judiciary, such as Article 14 of the Act granting the Committee the right to investigate, and Article 15 and Article 16 allowing the Committee to seal documents and materials regarded as evidence and to require those under investigation to speak the truth. According to Constitutional Interpretation No. 613 concerning the operation of an independent agency, the constitutionality of the operation of an independent agency will be upheld “if important matters are determined by means of hearings, if the performance of the execution of its mission is made transparent and public for the purpose of public supervision,” and with the existing “authority of the Legislative Yuan to supervise the operation of the independent agency through legislation and budget review.” Article 19 prohibits damaging of political archives on pain of imprisonment; however, the one who initiates the investigation should still be the prosecutors, as how the offenses of destruction, abandonment, and damage of property are governed in the Criminal Code.

In general, the Committee will be operating in the same way as other independent agencies (e.g. the National Communications Commission and the Fair Trade Commission), exercising its jurisdiction independently, unaffected by the change of premier and having the power of administrative enforcement (one could refer to the Administrative Execution Act for an understanding of how the power is governed). However, the Committee should be as prudent and transparent as possible when exercising these powers, with the Committee making critical decisions by consensus.

10. What is transitional justice anyway? What should be done to achieve it?

Transitional justice” used to be a professional term developed by international academia to refer to how a society that has achieved democratic transition faces and deals with mass human rights violations committed in the past by the state. It has therefore also been termed as “dealing with past wrongs.” The main objective of transitional justice is “Never Again” and to make up for the past sufferings of our fellow countrymen and -women. The core objectives of transitional justice are: seeking the truth, compensating the victims, restoring justice, attaining social reconciliation and preventing the return of state violence.

How is transitional justice done then? The more commonly seen mechanisms include (1) trials and vetting (holding the persecuting system and persecutors accountable); (2) setting up a Truth Committee and sorting and making public the related archives (the state needs to recognize what mistakes it has done); (3) compensating the victims and their families and restoring their reputation; (4) rebuilding the memory (removing/remaking symbols of authoritarianism and cautioning future generations against the return of authoritarianism through museums, memorials and textbooks). Every country has its own distinct way of carrying out transitional justice under different historical/political contexts; there is no “correct way.”

This piece originally appeared in Chinese. Translation by Alison Hsiao

No More Articles