‘Democracy and Human Rights will Weaken if No One Keeps Fighting for Them’ – Interview with E-Ling Chiu, Secretary General of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR)
4 April 2017 7:00 pm

For this month’s e-newsletter, FORUM-ASIA talked to E-ling Chiu. E-Ling Chiu is currently the Secretary General of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), a member of FORUM-ASIA. She is also Executive Board Member of the Covenants Watch, Taiwan, and Executive Board Member of the Taiwan Alliance to End Death Penalty. Previously she was Executive Board Member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). She was involved as a coordinator of the NGOs on Ji-Nan Road during the Sunflower Movement, as well as a co-organiser of the March 30 event.

In this interview we asked her about her background, her motivation, inspiring moments and challenges. To learn more about her life and work in Taiwan.

How did you become involved with human rights? And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

When I was a teenager, my aunt, who studied Sociology, started to give me magazines and newspapers talking about women’s rights, the White Terror period and Martial Law in Taiwan. When I graduated from High School, I decided to study Sociology as well. During my college years, I joined student groups which focused on issues, like the democratisation of the University, labour issues, and gender issues, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people’s rights. At the time, we held several rallies, for example related to a sexual assault case at the University, the abolishment of the curfew on the female dormitory, stopping the trees in campus to be cut down, and demanding the participation of students in important decision making processes on policy. I also joined a bus drivers’ strike in Taichung city and did interviews with the drivers so their stories could be heard by society. After finishing my studies in Graduate School, my first job was as an editor assistant for an East Asia academic journal.

I started full-time with the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focussed on human rights in 2008, it is my second job. TAHR was established in 1984, during the Martial Law period of Taiwan. My organisation was part of many important movements in the human rights history of Taiwan. Currently, it is still one of the most important human rights organisations in the country.

In the past, TAHR focused on various, issues such as: abolishing Martial Law; 228 peace and justice movement; abolishing the death penalty; judicial reform; cases of innocently incarcerated; and indigenous people’s rights. Nowadays, we are focusing more on: the right to peaceful assembly; civil society space; online freedom of expression and privacy; human rights defenders; refugees and stateless people; the right to housing; business and human rights; national human rights institutions; and monitoring the implementation of UN human rights conventions.

My first experience with FORUM-ASIA was when I participated in the Annual Training and Study Session for Asian Human Rights Defenders (ATSS). That was the first time for me to discuss human rights issues by using United Nations (UN) language. Since Taiwan is not a Member State of the UN, there are very few teachers in University that focus on international human rights or UN human rights mechanisms. It is also rare to have vocational training for a NGO staff in Taiwan. It was my first time to meet so many different human rights activists from neighbouring countries in the region.

After that, I also participated in other meetings and forums focussed on different themes organised by FORUM-ASIA. During every meeting, I understood the different human rights situations in the region better, had more discussions on various issues, and learned how to discuss these issues in a broader context.

What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

Many things! Since human rights is not a very popular issue in Taiwan, certain debates, like the death penalty or gay marriage, caused emotions to run very high. Although TAHR is an old NGO with 33 years of history, it is still a small organisation with limited resources, a lack of effective communication tools and at times a general public, which is not entirely perceptive of our point of view.

Although democracy in Taiwan still has its flaws, compared to other countries, there are no serious human rights violations on a daily basis. However, since Taiwan went through the longest Martial Law period in the world, people are still afraid to discuss publically or participate in public affairs. Let alone be seen to be involved with NGOs which criticise the Government or relate with protesters, who are perceived as troublemakers.

Human rights are not considered to be part of common sense by the general public. Usually the public has its own interpretation of ‘rights’. For them, human rights NGO are only assisting bad guys, such a prisoners or convicts on death row.

When there is a new policy or legislation, which we know violates human rights, get great support both by legislators and the public, it reminds me of the importance to insist on the basic principles of human rights and to speak out. Since we are only a few, if we keep silent, then no one will say anything at all.

After the Sunflower Movement in 2014, there have been more and more young people who want to join NGOs as full-time staff or volunteer. That change is very encouraging, so we are trying to find new ways of communication with the young generation.

Please tell us one of the most inspiring moments for you in your work in the past years?

There are several things, one of the most inspiring moments have been when we have rescued people that were innocent. For example the Su Trio case, who had been on death row for over 20 years, but eventually found ‘not guilty’ in 2012. One of the accused who was released, has been my colleague now for many years.

The anti-nuclear power plant movement and the Sunflower movement were two other inspiring moments. The anti-nuclear movement had been withdrawn for a long time, and the local protesters were getting older and older. However, after Fukushima accident in 2011, the awareness of Taiwanese people was raised once again about the danger of nuclear power plants. Various groups, including housewives, parents, environmental and human rights NGOs, all came together to a hold big rally in Taiwan. From 2000 to 2008, during the ruling of the Democratic Progressive Party, it was very rare to see any big social movement on the street. People believed and hoped that the former the opposition party would do better than the dictatorial Kuomintang (KMT) party, however, they were disappointed once again after they had been in power for eight years. The anti-nuclear movement gathered the dispersed NGOs together again.

The Sunflower movement was another break from the daily routine of life. We worked on the street around the parliament every day, discussed with the general public every day. It was a big space were ordinary people could gather, and we could communicate with them all the time. At that time, so many people came out from their homes, giving different kinds of supports, bring their questions to discuss. It was an open space to discuss all the important issues, including: democracy; constitution reform; the rule of law; state violence; and the relationship between China and Taiwan. [Click here to read the article written by E-Ling for FORUM-ASIA’s 25th Anniversary Publication on the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan]

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights?

Lack of resources and manpower. Everyone in my organisation has to tackle more than one case or issue. We have to respond a lot of news, cases, policy changes and draft legislation. Sometimes, we have to support other NGOs. It is exhausting and incredibly tiresome. It is also in some way ironic that people who try to protect the human rights of others, somehow end up sacrificing their own human rights in the process.

How do you deal with such obstacles in your work?

In recent years, we have tried to provide a better working environment to the full-time staff, and have tried to reduce the number of issues they focus on, to emphasis fewer issues. It means we can concentrate more, focus on some issues, and go deeper. However, being a generic human rights NGO, sometimes it still difficult to refuse cases or reduce issues.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

The current human rights we enjoy were fought for and struggled for by the older generation. If you want Taiwan to become a real democratic country, it is not enough to only vote. Democracy and human rights will weaken if no one keeps fighting for them.