A written statement has been submitted to the 49th session of the Human Rights Council on how corruption affects human rights. It argues that the persecution of Tai Ji Men is “a clear case of corruption.”

by Massimo Introvigne

An article already published in Bitter Winter on February 16th, 2022.

The United Nations Headquarters in Geneva. Credits.
The United Nations Headquarters in Geneva. Credits.

On February 28, 2022, the 49th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council opens in Geneva, Switzerland. Among the written statements filed by NGOs that enjoy a consultative status with the United Nations’ ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) one has been presented by CAP-LC (Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience, Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience) on “Corruption as a Tool for Human Rights Violations and Religious Liberty.” The statement has been published on the web site of the United Nations (in some browsers, clicking on the word “English” is needed to access the document).

The statement mentions that scholars have recognized that corruption is a violation of human rights. “Thirteen years ago, CAP-LC states, the Maastricht Center for Human Rights in the Netherlands organized an important conference on corruption as a human rights issue, on October 22–23, 2009. The majority position at the Maastricht conference was that there is indeed a provision in international law that makes corruption a violation of human rights. It is article 2, number 1, of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” The provision mandates that states should remove the obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights by their citizens, and there is little doubt that corruption is such an obstacle.

According to CAP-LC, “the Maastricht conference had an influence on the Final Report of the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the issue of the negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights of January 5, 2015; and on Resolution 29/11 of the United Nations Human Rights Council, titled ‘The Negative Impact of Corruption on the Enjoyment of Human Rights,’ and dated July 2, 2015.” These documents “confirmed that corruption is indeed a violation of human rights and of Article 2 of the Covenant.”

The statement then observes that CAP-LC is specially active in the field of religious liberty, a human right that is also negatively affected by different forms of corruption. One form is economic corruption, when violations of freedom of religion or belief are motivated by the greed of public officers. But there is also an ideological corruption, “when judicial and administrative authorities consciously render unjust decisions for ideological or political reasons, or allow private actors to unduly influence their verdicts and actions.”

The statement gives the example of some court decisions against members of the Ahmadi religious minority in Pakistan, which are unfair to the point of being absurd. Some judges, CAP-LC says, may have “accepted bribes” but, even if this was not the case, ideological corruption was at work as the judges let the prejudice against an unpopular religious minority prevail.

Even in countries with a solid democratic tradition, such as France and Germany, ideological corruption threatens religious liberty since “so-called anti-cult associations may intervene during the judicial process and corrupt it. In a recent criminal case in Germany, defendants were taken from their religious community in the early morning to a police station, where they were interrogated by members of a private anti-cult organization.”

The statement then presents in detail what is perhaps the most important case internationally where corruption creates violations of freedom of religion or belief, the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan. Calling it the most relevant example of the perverse effect of corruption on religious liberty is not exaggerated, considering that the case has been going on for more than 25 years. It was in 1996 that Tai Ji Men, in the words of the statement, became one of “several spiritual movements targeted by a politically motivated crackdown against religious groups accused of not having supported the candidate who eventually won the presidential election. Its leader, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, his wife, and two disciples were arrested, accused of religious fraud and tax evasion.”

According to CAP-LC, “it was a clear case of ideological corruption, as proved by the fact that the charges eventually collapsed. On July 13, 2007, the criminal division of the Supreme Court of Taiwan” pronounced “the final acquittal of Tai Ji Men defendants, declaring them innocent of all charges. The Supreme Court also declared there was no tax evasion. National compensation for the wrongful detention was given to Dr. Hong and his co-defendants who had been detained.”

Corruption, continues the statement, continued even after the 2007 decision, since “some National Taxation Bureau (NTB) bureaucrats decided to ignore the court decision and go on with their unjustified tax evasion action.” This corruption was not ideological only. Bureaucrats “also knew that they could pocket significant bonuses by issuing tax bills against a large movement such as Tai Ji Men, another clue that corruption was at work.”

The NTB, the statement explains, tried first to maintain “tax bills for the years 1991 to 1996, claiming that the money Dr. Hong had received in these years in the ‘red envelopes’ should not be considered as non-taxable gifts but as tuition fees for a so-called ‘cram school,’ i.e., a school where pupils receive crash courses, normally in preparation for exams.” After different authorities and courts clarified that “there was no cram school and no tax evasion,” the NTB, “in accordance with the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court and the Taipei High Administrative Court, agreed that tax bills for the years 1991 and 1993 to 1996 should be corrected to zero, but maintained the tax bill for 1992, including penalties.”

“Logically, CAP-LC comments, this did not make sense, as the content of the red envelopes in 1992 was not different from the other years. The NTB relied on a technicality, i.e., that for the year 1992, and only for that year, a decision by the Supreme Administrative Court rendered in 2006 had become final.” But “it is a general principle of law that even final decisions can and should be revised or not enforced when a new fact intervenes, in this case the verdict of the criminal section of the Supreme Court of 2007 that found Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men not guilty of tax evasion.” However, “the NTB refused to cancel the tax bill for 1992 and, based on this, sacred land intended for a self-cultivation center of Tai Ji Men was seized, auctioned off unsuccessfully, and then confiscated in 2020, which generated widespread street protests.”

All this, CAP-LC concludes, had a direct connection with corruption. “Once again, the system of bonuses granted to bureaucrats who enforce tax bills signaled that corruption was a significant part of the problem.”

Why was the case denounced at the United Nations Human Rights Council? CAP-LC is aware of the possible objection that “corruption is an internal matter of the states. They should spot it, punish it, and rectify it. International bodies can offer suggestions and even shame the corrupted states publicly, but they cannot intervene.”

It is for this reason, the statement answers, that acknowledging the connection between corruption and violations of human rights is important. “When human rights are violated, this is an international humanitarian problem and the international community has both a right and a duty to intervene.” This is why cases where corruption puts freedom of religion or belief at risk, including the most important of them, the Tai Ji Men case, deserves the attention of international institutions.

The statement filed at the 49th session of the Human Rights Council signals the increasing internationalization of the Tai Ji Men case. It is not the first filed with the Human Rights Council. On November 9, 2010, the Association of World Citizens, another ECOSOC-accredited NGO, submitted a 1503 procedure to the Human Rights Council about the Tai Ji Men case. A 1503 procedure is a complaint denouncing a case of violation of human rights and inviting the Human Rights Council to investigate.

At the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, CAP-LC filed a written statement that was distributed on June 21, 2021, on how governments misuse taxes to discriminate against certain religious and spiritual organizations, a human rights abuse of which the Tai Ji Men case was offered as an egregious example.

At the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, the same CAP-LC filed another written statement, distributed on August 31, 2021, which focused on the seizure of real estate as a weapon to discriminate against religious and spiritual minorities. The case of the sacred land of Tai Ji Men seized, auctioned off, and confiscated in 2020 on the basis of the ill-founded tax bill for 1992 was the main example of this dangerous strategy presented in the statement.

The statement on corruption filed at the 49th session is thus the fourth document calling the attention of the Human Rights Council on the Tai Ji Men case. For the government of Taiwan, it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the global support for Tai Ji Men in the international academic and human rights community.