Saturday, November 04, 2006

Troubled times for Taiwan

These are troubled times for Taiwan’s young democracy, and its president Chen Shui-Bian. Less than two decades ago the country was still under the four decade long one-party regime of the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalists). Since the 1990s, peaceful transitions of power, reforms, a number of free and fair democratic elections have together transformed this little island into the freest democracy and society in Asia.

That the KMT was (and is) corrupt is a well-known. For far too long the state and party were one and the same, which meant officials were able to use or abuse public funds as they please. Billions and billions were siphoned into the pockets and accounts of high-level officials, mostly through kickbacks in grand public construction works and arms-purchases (think Lafayette scandal). No wonder the late dictator Chiang Kai-Shek was nicknamed ‘Cash my Check’.

Many thought the transition of power to the pro-Taiwan/pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) would change things for the better. After all, since the party’s establishment in 1986 it has been championing for reforms, a break from the authoritarian past, and an end to corruption and nepotism. For many years, this was the party whose members were hounded and jailed by the dictatorship. For many years, this was the party calling for change on the fringes of the KMT-monopolised politics, society and media. But it managed to gain ground, push for reforms, democratic elections, and managed to come to power in 2000.

Members of the current government seem to enjoy the hallmarks and heroics of your typical dissident-turned-government legend. The president, who won the Liberal International Prize for Freedom in 2001, himself spent a spell in jail for being the defence lawyer of democracy activists in the 1980s. At about the same time when Chen was becoming politically active, his wife, Wu Shu-chen, was hit by a truck under ‘mysterious circumstances’ and has since been paralysed from the waist. Vice-President Annette Lu spent 12 years in prison for delivering a 45 minute speech advocating Taiwan’s independence. Undoubtedly, these are admirable people, who should be lauded for what they have achieved. But they are people, and people make mistakes.

After a series of (false) accusations and media frenzy, it turns out that the First Lady, and some of the president’s aides are guilty of corruption:

“The High Court will charge Chen's wife, Wu Shu-chen, with corruption, faking evidence and faking documents in a case involving the misuse of more than T$14.8 million (236,000 pounds).

"In the end it was determined through receipts of purchases by other people, that Wu Shu-chen -- between July 2002 and March 2006 -- embezzled over T$14.8 million of the secret state funds,”

And President Chen may also be guilty as well:

The charges relate to the handling of a secret presidential fund used for diplomatic work overseas. Officials say around US$500,000 could not be properly accounted for.

During the four-month investigation, officials looked at six separate cases involving the use of the fund. They said the president's explanation for two were verified, but three were questionable and one was described as pure fiction.”

The opposition KMT is of course overjoyed, and are planning their latest offensive to oust the president out of office. Ever since losing power in 2000, they have been sour and using every chance they can get to discredit and undermine President Chen and the new government’s authority. A bill to purchase necessary defensive weapons against China’s military threats has been blocked 62nd times since 2001. Thousands of protesters took to the streets again demanding the President’s resignation.

I look at this from so far away, and often wonder what is happening… corrupt people should indeed be punished, regardless of who they are and what positions of influences they have. In a way, the fact that the judiciary is able to investigate and charge people in high ranking positions underlines Taiwan’s democractic credentials. In an interview with the Financial Times just before the outbreak of the charges against the First Lady, President Chen put it very poignantly:

“Even if my family members have made some mistakes, we all have to undergo legal scrutiny […] Sometimes I feel ashamed and feel this is a loss of face. But isn’t this also to be cherished as a sign of Taiwan’s democracy and rule of law? Thus personal liabilities become everyone’s assets.”

An editorial wrote:

“If one good thing has come out of this miserable affair, it is that the investigation has proceeded without substantial interference by the Presidential Office or other executive organs. For those who place stock in the separation of powers, there is satisfaction to be had at witnessing a president, his wife and his staff come undone at the hands of a wide-ranging probe by officers whose agencies he ultimately has some power over.”

Thankfully, Taiwan has been able to undergo these protests, scandals without much disruption to peace and society. People are able to protest and shout anti-government slogans to their hearts content, and they need not fear the government cracking down and jailing people arbitrarily. If anything, these tests of endurance and processes involving mass popular movements and demonstrations serve to strengthen Taiwan’s social and political entrenchment in valuing democratic values and freedoms.

But at the same time the recent developments are worrying too. Why is it that the former government, one that is guilty of murders, disappearances, and levels of embezzlement that far trump the recent charges, is able to get away with impunity? Not only are members of the KMT known for their shady pasts, they seem to be the ones who are most adamant in calling for Chen’s downfall. This shows that even after the transition of power, the roots of the system are very much entrenched and in favour of the old regime.

And then there’s the problem of media-fairness. The KMT still very much dominates the media, and is thus often manipulate news to discredit the government. It seems that the tradition of trial-by-media is still a rampant problem:

“Such things cannot be decided by the mass media, by people like you and me. It has to be decided by the legal system. In fact, I'm very sceptical of our mass media. They don't report news but treat each news story as a drama.

We have to wait and see. I don't think the president should step down just because of these charges. I don't want to prejudge whether he is right or wrong.

The people who are against the president are not used to having a system and they are against him, personally. That is not healthy.”

Here’s another view of the problem:

“I think the media in Taiwan are not fair to Chen Shui-bian and to his DPP party. Most of the newspapers seem to hate him. I don't like that. Such newspapers are not supported by the Taiwanese people”

I really hope that at the end of the day Taiwan will be able to deal with this in an orderly manner, according to the rule of law and respecting democratic principles of justice and fairness.

Because that’s what democratic progress is all about.

See here for more coverage by an American professor living in Taiwan.

The maverick prosecutor who knows no political colours, Eric Chen. Ironically, he is a memeber of " the Black Gold Investigation Center under the Taiwan High Court Prosecutors' Office" estalbished by the current government which is supposed to investigate and curb corruption.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Chinese perspectives

I know that I’m not the most objective person on the topic, but when you attend a lecture entitled “Chinese Observations on International Law” by the Chinese Ambassador to the Netherlands, who is also a member of the International Law Commission, you’d expect more than a lecture about the general nature of international law. But a session on the history and development of international law was what it felt like. I guess a one hour lecture doesn’t give you much time or room to expand... perhaps, especially when you’re speaking on behalf of a country that’s often accused of not living up to its international obligations.

China “attaches great importance to international law”. International law is the key to peace, stability and development, she says, and it is built on the respect and defence of every state’s sovereign independence and territorial integrity. And this very concept of sovereignty is one that she emphasised time and again. What is this notion of sovereignty? The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which forms the foundation of China’s foreign policy explains this clearly: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. It is based on equality, non-intervention, and the right to preserve each state’s political, economic and social systems. Remember this, because this seems to be the motivation and response of China in its relations with the rest of the world. No one should judge another, let alone interfere, because we do things our way.

Therefore, she added, it is worrying that there are trends toward unilateralism, rising role played by non-state actors and a fragmentation of international law to increasingly reflect national interests. More “intrusive” is the attempts of the international community to arbitrarily intervene based on the protection of human rights, especially in situations where the state has failed. These trends can be attributed to the fundamental premise founded on and as a result of the dominance of western liberalism in the international legal order.

There really wasn’t much about how China is living up to its international obligations. Maybe the fact that there are currently one thousand something Chinese peacekeepers is supposed to tell us something about China’s active role in international affairs. Of course, much importance was put on how China has become a key economic player in the world, and is party to hundreds of bi- and multilateral trade treaties. She was proud of the fact that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights are still in force in Hong Kong and Macau after the colonial regimes left. Silence on the increasing erosion of press freedom and lack of full democratic government in the two territories, and further silence on the prospect of China itself ratifying both human rights instruments.

Just as I was wondering what happened to the advances in the protection of human rights in the international legal order, a member of the audience asked a prominent question: what is more important—recognition by the international community, or the consensus of the people? I gasped, partly because finally someone touched upon a topic that all of us know, despite China’s impressive growth rates and entrance into the WTO, is continuously nagging at the back of our minds. She went on again about the importance of sovereignty and seemed to deliberately skirt around the issue. Political dynamite. Another person asked about Tibet, because throughout the lecture the speaker seemed fascinated with the way the European Union functions in terms of embracing differing national identities while at the same time respecting rights of individual peoples. China has constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities, she assured us.

And time was up. Clap, clap, clap.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

stroll in Clingendael

Some nice pictures of Clingendael~
Just love the beautiful mixture of colours that autumn brings...
Click on the links below to access my travelog! : ) Enjoy!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Illuminada 2006

Please visit my travelog for pictures of Illuminada~ : )

What aggression? Whose aggression?

What aggression? Whose aggression?

Went to an interesting lecture last week about on the ‘Crime of Aggression’. Everyone agrees thus that aggression is an evil, and that an end should be put to aggression wherever and whenever it takes place. This is why the recently established International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to decide and punish people who have be involved in the commission of an act of aggression on behalf of a state.

The International Military Tribunal at Nurmberg outlawed any act of aggression in the very clear and strong language:

"To initiate a war of aggression . . . is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

Individuals can be held accountability for a crime of aggression if they are involved in the "planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing....". Thus for perhaps the first time in history, it was decided that “individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by individual states."[1]

For ICC today, the major sources of contention surround i) the definition of what a crime of aggression is, and ii) who has the authority to determine when an aggression has taken place. The Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court leaves the definition of what aggression is open (Art 5(2)), to be determined in the future. Though there are some debate about the (legal) definition of aggression, some listed here are more or less undisputed (though nonetheless not exhaustive)[2]:

  • invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State, or military occupation, or annexation of territory by the use of force
  • bombardment by armed forces of a State against the territory of another State
  • the blockade of ports or coasts of a State
  • the use of armed forces of a State which are within the territory of another State in violation of the terms of an agreement between those States
  • a State allowing its territory to be used by another State for an act of aggression against a third State
  • a State sending armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries to carry out grave acts of armed force against another State

The reason why it’s been impossible to reach a legal definition of aggression is because states and scholars are unable to agree on a definition that is wide enough to cover all sorts of possible future scenarios, but that is strict enough to avoid political abuse.

And it’s the issue of political abuse that the next big controversy is all about. Who gets to decide when an act of aggression has taken place? Looking at the UN Charter, specifically Art 39, it appears that the Security Council is the one to decide, because this body of the UN is the one endowed to ensure international peace and security. But as has been seen so many times before, the SC is often unable to decide unanimously, because the interests of the Big Five get in the way, and the ability to veto often results in a impasse, even when clear acts of aggression have taken place.

The next problem is one that is even more worrying, and one that seems all too common, and will undoubtedly continue to exist in the future. What if one of the Big Five is the aggressor who commits an act of aggression? The ability to veto basically is an immunity that places all five powers above the law and thereby enable them to get away with even the most heinous acts. Surely it is impossible to fathom the US condemning itself for an act of aggression for the invasion of Iraq. The double crises surrounding Iran and North Korea could be potential for other military campaigns. And what if in the near future up-and-coming rivalry China decides to realise its territorial ambitions and invade Taiwan? The ability of the SC to determine and to silence acts of aggression is arbitrary and only serve to protect ensure international peace and security as far as it confirms and is not in conflicts with any of their, be it individual or, more rarely, united, interests.

Undoubtedly, the determination of an act of aggression will be a political act. The rules as they stand today regarding the determination of aggression are poorly suited a time when new challenges and continuing superpower rivalries and ambitions present themselves. It was suggested that ideally an independent and impartial organisation, perhaps the ICC itself should have the right of reviewing what are essentially political determinations. Or better still, the Court should be empowered with the authority to determine what an act of aggression is in the face of political impasse and threatening vetos.

The UN’s weakness is not in its inability to act, but in the inability for it to act freely because of the presence of it outdated organisation of power premised on the victor’s supremacy and justice established in 1945:

“But in reality, the basic problem facing the UN has not altered since its inception in 1945. […]

The problem is the dominance of the Security Council by the five permanent members -- the US, Britain, Russia, China and France -- which also happen to be the five leading nuclear weapons states (although Israel may have unofficially usurped some of them in the atomic pecking order).

The power afforded by the UN rulebooks to these five countries alone, out of a total 192 members of the General Assembly, means that the UN, which can never ultimately be more than the sum of its parts, is effectively held hostage by the so-called "great powers."

They find it convenient to use the Security Council as a protective shield, diplomatic tool and excuse to promote inaction when inaction most suits their interest.

Alternatively, their pre-eminence allows them to ignore or stymie the UN when they are set on having their own way. Everybody on the council knows the way the game works. And the fact that each of the five exercises veto power means that uncomfortable confrontations, such as that before the Iraq war, are rare.”

But the key institutional reform -- enlargement of the Security Council to better reflect the interests and priorities of the whole international community -- has proved unobtainable.

Why so? Because the vested interests of the five permanent members in maintaining the status quo that suits them so well is too powerful.

Until this cartel is broken up, expect more tragic fiascos like North Korea, Lebanon and Sudan. And expect growing, righteous and increasingly violent rage in the developing world against the virtual monopoly of power enjoyed by the new and old empires of east and west.”[3]

A consequence of this SC dominated organisation is deadlock. As much as the idealistic principles enshrined in the UN Charter are to protect international peace and security, there can be no peace or security when the interests of certain powers are able to trump over human rights and justice. Rwanda underscored that the lives of a million civilians can be still be just as easily lost, even after the traumas of the Khmer Rouge. Russia was defiant against so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Kosovo. In the face of the Iraqi (ongoing) campaign, the SC was unable to prevent the US and UK acting unilaterally. Vested oil and economic interests in Sudan meant that despite widespread recognition of and appeals to prevent the ongoing genocide the SC remains unwilling to act in unison.

“[…] In all cases, the United Nations has promised to uphold the highest principles of international law and then committed sins of omission which were so grievous it has been close to being an accessory to mass murder.

The result is that any totalitarian regime or movement committing crimes against humanity knows it can get away with treating the UN with […] derision […].”

[1] Marjorie Cohn, ‘The Crime of Aggression: What is it and why doesn’t the US want the International Criminal Court to punish it?

[2] General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX), <>

[3] Simon Tisdall, ‘The fundamental problem with the UN’, The Observer