COUNTLESS studies have shown that capital punishment doesn’t lower the crime rate, and opposition against the morality of the death penalty has been mounting in recent years. But that hasn’t stopped many politicians doggedly insisting the most severe form of corporal punishment be continued.
In Taiwan, as in other countries that have capital punishment, it has become a political tool. In the lead up to local elections last year, rights groups accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of timing the only execution of the year to boost their popularity. The execution date? – President Tsai Ing-wen’s birthday.
The country only reintroduced the measure in 2010 after a brief hiatus. The DPP has supported the abolition of the death penalty in the past. As far as 1999, the party’s action plan said the party would “respect life, prevent miscarriages of justice and search for ways to end the use of capital punishment.”
However, the party’s previous administration oversaw 32 executions between 2000 and 2006, and the current president has failed to take a strong position on abolition, instead maintaining the measure is legal and must remain in place.
But why the failure to act when all of the evidence argues against the merits of capital punishment?
There is still no evidence the death penalty deters crime, and almost 90 percent of sociologists confidently believe it doesn’t. It costs the state huge amounts of money, is known to predominantly target the poor, and there has been no connection found between executions and emotional closure for the victims’ families.
The easy answer as to why politicians keep the measure is because it’s popular.
A huge majority of Taiwanese still support the death penalty. That’s a lot of people that election-minded politicians want to avoid alienating.
“About 80 percent of people support the death penalty, and the politicians, they worry about elections. They don’t want to speak out loudly against it,” Hsinyi Lin, Executive Director of Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), said while speaking at an Amnesty International Death Penalty conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Friday.
“For them [politicians], they don’t really think about it, they’re just worried about losing the vote, losing the elections. That’s why they really don’t want to do anything.”
While pandering to pro-capital punishment sentiment at home, Lin accuses politicians of paying lip service to abolition on the international stage to placate human rights groups and governing bodies.
“It’s ironic, when they face foreign countries and international human rights organisations, they will say, ‘We are Taiwan, we will abolish the death penalty, we respect human rights,'” Lin told Asian Correspondent.
“But when they face the domestic people and media they say, ‘We considered abolishing it but the people still support it so we need to carry out the execution.’ When they face different people, they say different things.”
As an example, Lin details one instance when the DPP set up a working group to work towards abolition. What politicians did not make public was that the task force was made up of NGOs who actually supported the use of the death penalty.
Needless to say, little progress was made, but the government was able to point to the task force as evidence of them taking action on the issue when questioned internationally.
Despite making all the right moves internationally, at home the political game playing continues.
It is such a contentious and passionate topic for some people that even the family of victims have been known to face harassment if they don’t push for the death penalty for the offender.
But that support of the death penalty, which seems so conclusive at 80 percent, is not quite as straightforward as it seems. Scratch the surface and people’s feeling on the subject are far more nuanced than sometimes even they are given the chance to realise.
Although the polls show Taiwan overwhelmingly supports capital punishment, Lin found if people are provided with more information they lower their acceptance, not just of the death penalty but the severity of any punishment.
“If people have more information about the death penalty, they will not choose it as a punishment,” Lin said of a public opinon survey conducted by the TAEDP.
“And if they have another choice, such as life sentence or life sentence without parole, people will choose the alternative.”
But that information about the death penalty can be hard to find, in most part because of the government’s reluctance to share it. Lin believes the widespread support is mostly based on ignorance, and this includes the politicians themselves. This lack of knowledge combined with a complete lack of political will make it a difficult battle to win.
“We have people that we can communicate with in the government but it is very difficult if they always relate it to an election. The public doesn’t understand the death penalty, but the political leaders don’t understand it too,” said Lin.
“We don’t have political leaders who have the responsibility or the courage to understand human rights.”
In contrast, Malaysia’s government has shown “bravery” by taking major steps towards abolition, something Lin applauds.
The new Pakatan Harapan announced in October that it was taking steps to end the law, which is still used for drug traffickers as well as treason, murder, and terrorism. It is being tabled for discussion in March.
Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a researcher from Amnesty International, says there has been a notable shift since the new administration took power in May.
“The new government has definitely been more receptive to human rights reform and several promises in their manifesto since they came to power have been fulfilled,” Chhoa-Howard told Asian Correspondent.
“There has been some backtracking, and that’s concerning, but this is a tremendous opportunity when it comes to the death penalty.”
The installation of longtime human rights advocates into power has spurred on Malaysia’s progress on this front, Chhoa-Howard said. Many of the new administration have long espoused the importance of human rights and a need for a change in the policy.
While Malaysia’s awakening came from a whole change of government, in Taiwan, it may well come from somewhere else entirely.
Lin may have accused the political elite of lacking political courage. But there is one group on the rise in the country who have exactly that in spades.
The Obasang Alliance – or old women (an affectionate term rather than an insult) – have had enough of political pandering and are raising their voice on the issues that they, as mothers, care about.
A collection of independents as opposed to a fully formed political party, the Alliance may have failed to win any seats in last year’s local elections, but their no-nonsense, anti-spin approach to politics is starting to resonate with the everyday Taiwanese.
Their refusal to compromise on their morals is getting them noticed and winning them supporters. They have turned down offers to partner with political parties and NGOs, instead preferring to remain independent.
Following the single execution of 2018, the Obasang Alliance were the only party to release a statement condemning the punishment. Refusing to be cowed by public pressure.
After years of debate, contention, and politicking, could it be a group of “old women” – not politicians – who finally put an end to the death penalty in Taiwan?