Japan, Taiwan and the Death Penalty

Although being the Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children is a full-time job, I engage in extra-curricular activities as well. In one such activity I am Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). MVHFR is an anti-capital punishment organization composed of people who have had immediate family members murdered, executed or disappeared, and who view capital punishment not as a criminal justice issue, but as a human rights abuse.

From June 21st to July 5th I am joining a half dozen other members on a speaking tour to the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima in Japan, and Taipei, Hsin-chu and Tai-chung in Taiwan. Many people are surprised to learn that Japan still has capital punishment. While they have carried out very few executions during the last decade, they still, on occasion, execute people who have been convicted of murder.

In Japan, as in many countries, it is assumed that the family members of murder victims unanimously support the execution of their loved-ones’ murderers. Few have even considered the possibility that family members of murder victims might abhor further violence and chose a more constructive response. We have made contact with murder victims family members in Japan who believe as we do, but because there is a stigma attached to this position, many are afraid to come forward without additional support. We hope to provide that support and will be speaking at press conferences, bar association forums, universities and at the Hiroshima memorial.

Some of my presentations will focus on the children of those who are executed. Many proponents of the death penalty have never considered the impact the execution of a parent might have on a young child. But I will also be speaking in Hiroshima about my parents, two more victims of the atom bomb, half a world away from where it was dropped. This will be the highlight of the trip for me.

Politics in Taiwan are very complicated. The native Taiwanese tried to maintain their autonomy against the Nationalist Chinese forces who established their central government in Taipei after being forced from the mainland by the Communist Chinese Army in 1949. This led to brutal repression (referred to as the White Terror) that lasted for decades. Thousands of native Taiwanese who were accused of being Communist subversives were jailed, tortured and executed. When the Native Taiwanese political party gained power several years ago, the government moved toward abolishing capital punishment. However, the Nationalists won the last election, and the government executed four people last month.

I will be meeting many Taiwanese who, like me, had family members executed in the 1940’s and 50’s for being communists. I find it ironic that a few decades later I will be speaking in Taiwan, while not too far away, China the country that claims dominion over Taiwan, is executing more people than any other in the world. Instead of people being executed because they are communists, they are being executed by people who claim to be communists.

Capital punishment isn’t a communist, anti-communist, or nationalist issue. The death penalty is a human rights issue. Article Three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by all the members of the United Nations, sets forth the first specific right listed in that document. It starts: “Everyone has the right to life….” It makes sense that this right would be the first one listed, because it is the most important right of all. If your life is terminated, none of the other rights matter to you.

Presenting these ideas in Japan and Taiwan will be stimulating, challenging and edifying. I look forward to sharing what I have learned upon my return.

(While I am gone, my daughter, Jenn – who eventually will take over as the RFC’s Executive Director – will guest blog for me. Look for her posts here the weeks of June 21st and June 28th)

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