Taiwan made the two United Nations human rights Covenants part of its domestic legislation in 2009. Periodically, the government asks independent experts to assess its compliance with them. The last Review Conference was held in May. Problems remain in the fields of freedom of religion or belief and tax justice, as demonstrated by the Tai Ji Men case, still unresolved after more than 25 years.
By Massimo Introvigne28 June 2022
The European Union is increasing its cooperation with Taiwan. It is an essential economic partner, particularly (but not only) in the field of semiconductors.
It is also a geopolitical partner for a Europe increasingly concerned with the expansionism of non-democratic superpowers.
Although we are now witnessing in Ukraine a return of traditional boots-on-the-ground warfare, it is still true that modern wars are also fought in the arena of propaganda and public relations.
Taiwan may be a reliable partner for Europe only if it maintains an image as a beacon of democracy in a region plagued by non-democratic regimes.
For reasons we all know, Taiwan is not a member state of the United Nations, but it affirmed its commitment to the U.N. human rights principles when it incorporated into its domestic law in 2009 the “two Covenants,” the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
In all countries, not in Taiwan only, achieving a full respect of the two Covenants is not easy. Again, Taiwan gave a positive signal when it devised a system for reviewing its achievements in complying with the two Covenants, which involved independent international experts.
In 2011, Taiwan’s government initiated the process of preparing reports on the rights protected by both Covenants, and in 2013, an independent Review Committee with experts from nine different countries was invited to review these reports. In 2013 and 2017, the experts examined the government’s reports and formulated their observations and recommendations. A review by the experts of the government’s 2020 answers to the second report was delayed because of COVID-19 until, from 9 to 13 May 2022, a Review Committee consisting of nine independent experts convened in Taipei.
On 13 May 2022, the Review Committee adopted a third set of Concluding Observations and Recommendations (COR 3), after an International Review Conference to which representatives of Taiwan’s civil society also participated. It was the first such review since the National Human Rights Commission was established in 2020.
The COR 3 show that work remains to be done to fully implement the two Covenants in Taiwan. In fact, despite the government’s claims, the two Covenants still do not play a significant role in court cases. According to the government itself, only some 100 cases mentioned them between 2015 and 2019. Clearly, more should be done.
On the other hand, the absence in the COR 3 of any reference to freedom of religion or belief (FORB) and taxpayers’ rights is surprising. As one of the scholars who has studied and lectured extensively on the Tai Ji Men case, I would have expected that both subjects would have been discussed in the COR 3. Time and again, those who have studied the Tai Ji Men case have noted that it is not an isolated incident and that both FORB and tax justice seem to be problems worth of the most serious consideration when assessing the situation of human rights in Taiwan.
During the five-day discussion, several NGO representatives and scholars pointed out to the above problems and referred to the Tai Ji Men case.
Three main problems emerged.
First, Taiwan has a National Human Rights Commission but how it exactly works remains unclear, particularly when confronted with cases involving the National Taxation Bureau and the Administrative Enforcement Agency. In the Tai Ji Men case, a complaint was treated by the Commission by simply asking the accused executive branch to prepare a letter, and then using that letter to answer the complainants. Second, human rights problems connected with tax justice remain unaddressed by the Commission and by COR 3. A traffic fine of NT$18,000, resulted in a seizure and foreclosure of the offender’s house, valued at NT$2.5 million.
A taxpayer was restricted from leaving the country indefinitely, and had to remain abroad for nine years, resulting in a divorce. While the Ministry of Finance has subsequently reduced the period of restriction of leaving the country to five years, the Administrative Enforcement Agency is still allowed to place residence restrictions on people whose tax debt reached about US $3,500, with no limitation on duration.
Another example is the case of Dr. L. He is a renowned scientist who returned to Taiwan and applied for a patent worth $10 million as the company’s capital, with the approval of the authorities, and was then taxed as if the capital contribution was income. He went bankrupt and lost his patents and business.
The number of interpretations of the tax law that have been declared unconstitutional is so high that it evidences a systemic lack of application of the two Covenants. The Taxpayer Protection Act of 2017 created the Taxpayer Protection Officer, but these officers are not really independent.
They are tax bureaucrats who serve part-time and return to their original positions after two years. In general, the system of bonuses given to tax bureaucrats incentives them to issue ill-founded tax bills and to violate taxpayers’ human rights. It should be deeply reformed or eliminated.
The system also allows the tax authorities to maintain the original tax bills indefinitely, even after court decisions have established that they are ill-founded. In the Interpretation Letter Orders issued by Ministry of Finance in 1961, 1978, and 1979, the original tax bill and the new double-reviewed tax bill issued by the National Taxation Bureau following the review coexist.
The revocation of the original sanction in a subsequent petition or an administrative court decision is a “revocation of the re-examined tax bill,” but does not revoke the “original tax bill.”
The consequence is that, even if the taxpayer wins the case several times, the original tax bill remains.
Additionally, the citizens’ right to request a tax refund has been subject to a time limit of 15 years, when there was previously no time limit for requesting a refund for an incorrect taxation by tax agencies.
The laws on disqualifying judges who have already served in previous stages of a case also needs to be amended, and they have created serious problems in tax cases. Tax injustice is not a technical problem but a serious violation of human rights and of the two Covenants.
A second area discussed in the conference is transitional justice, i.e., the restoration of rights violated by the previous non-democratic regime after a transition to democracy. The current President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, made transitional justice for victims of past Taiwanese authoritarian and post-authoritarian regimes a priority of her administration.
This is commendable, but provisions on transitional justice only refer to human rights violations perpetrated until November 6, 1992.
However, these violations continued even after that date, as the Tai Ji Men case demonstrates.
A third area concerns the laws regulating the rights of assembly and to hold peaceful demonstrations.
While amendments have been promised, the current laws still give the police a broad scope to deny authorizations.
Contrary to what the government reports, such denials are frequent. In general, freedom of speech and of peaceful protest continues to be unduly restricted.
Foreign scholars have commented on the case of Ms. Huang, a protester on the Tai Ji Men tax case, who was detained in 2020 just for holding a sign a bureaucrat regarded as offensive.
The Tai Ji Men case is a blatant and unresolved case of human rights violations, on which a significant scholarly literature exists both in Taiwan and internationally.
Tai Ji Men is a “menpai” (similar to a school) teaching qigong, martial arts, and self-cultivation whose master, his wife, and two members were detained in 1996, accused of fraud, tax evasion, and even, absurdly, of “raising goblins” by a prosecutor called Hou Kuan-Jen.
In 2007, a final decision of the court of third instance recognized them as not guilty of any crime, including tax evasion, and they received national compensation for the unjust detention.
However, not only was Prosecutor Hou never punished for his violations of the law in the Tai Ji Men case, but based on his theories that were declared unfounded in 2007, the National Taxation Bureau continued to issue tax bills and finally maintained the one for the year 1992.
Based on this bill, in 2020 the National Enforcement Agency auctioned off unsuccessfully and confiscated land intended for a Tai Ji Men self-cultivation center. This generated mass protests. The case includes several egregious violations of human rights, and any serious assessment of Taiwan’s compliance with the two Covenants should investigate it.
The Tai Ji Men case is not about taxes only. It is a case where rogue bureaucrats and politicians first tried, unsuccessfully, to destroy a spiritual movement accused of not supporting the powers that be, then, frustrated by their legal defeats, continued to harass it through taxes.
The case is at the crossroads of religious liberty and tax justice, and is a crucial test for Taiwan’s democratic achievements.