United Nations’ documents are increasingly treating corruption as a human rights issue. This directly impacts the case of Tai Ji Men.

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli*

*A paper presented at the International Forum for Human Rights “Human Rights and Anti-Corruption: The Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers, Washington D.C., December 6, 2021.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 15th, 2021.

The Corrupted Judge, caught taking bribes in a 15th-century fresco in the old Courthouse building in Reguengos de Monsaraz, Portugal.
The Corrupted Judge, caught taking bribes in a 15th-century fresco in the old Courthouse building in Reguengos de Monsaraz, Portugal. Credits.

I am very pleased to attend a forum preparing both the International Anti-Corruption Day of December 9 and the Human Rights Day of December 10.

An interesting question is whether the two days are related. In other words, is corruption a violation of human rights?

This question was addressed in an important conference organized by the Maastricht Center for Human Rights in the Netherlands on October 22–23, 2009, whose proceedings have been published, and have influenced subsequent documents of the United Nations.

The question is very important for the Tai Ji Men case. There is little doubt that corruption played a crucial role in what happened to Tai Ji Men. Even without mentioning political corruption, i.e., the fact that the criminal prosecution of 1996 was politically motivated and based on grounds the prosecutor knew were false, the whole story of the 1992 tax bills and the auction and seizure of Tai Ji Men’s sacred land in 2020 is a classic tale of corruption.

Tax bureaucrats maintained a tax bill for 1992 that they knew was based on a false assessment of the nature of the gifts received by Tai Ji Men leader Dr. Hong Tao-Tze in the so-called red envelopes. They knew the assessment was false as they had reduced to zero the tax bills for the other years, and they knew that the gifts and the ways of giving them in 1992 had not been different from the other years. The bureaucrats of the Administrative Enforcement Agency that auctioned and seized the land had also been told by lawyers, experts, politicians, and courts of law that they were proceeding based on a wrong and substantially illegal tax bill. Yet, they proceeded.

Why did the tax bureaucrats and the enforcement bureaucrats act as they did? Because of a peculiar Taiwanese system, denounced as immoral by leading scholars in Taiwan and internationally, whereby they get bonuses based on tax bills and enforcement. Said in less technical terms, the law allows them to pocket money. If they recognize a bill or an order for execution as substantially illegal and they do not go on with them, they lose money. Personal money. Money going to their pockets, perhaps supporting a new car or an expensive holiday. So, the system creates a monumental conflict of interest. Unless the bureaucrats are all angels, the system also becomes a machine to generate corruption.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

It is a general principle that corruption is an internal matter of the states. They should spot it, punish it, and rectify it. International bodies and other countries can offer suggestions and even shame the corrupted states publicly, but they cannot intervene.

However, human rights are a different matter. The United Nations, the European Union, and individual countries, including the United States, have recognized that when human rights are violated, this is an international humanitarian problem and the international community and individual states have both a right and a duty to intervene.

This is why the question whether corruption is or is not a violation of human rights is so important. Even if in the Tai Ji Men case other fundamental individual rights were violated, such as FORB (freedom of religion or belief), it is important to argue that the Tai Ji Men shifu (master) and dizi (devotees) have also seen their human rights violated since they became victims of corruption.

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. It states that “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means.” The broad language mentioning mobilizing the maximum of resources, achieving the full realization of human a rights, using all appropriate means, implies according to most scholars that states should eliminate corruption because corruption prevents citizen from “fully” enjoying their human rights.

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 Nation 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 a violation of human rights and of Article 2 of the Covenant. This is important for Taiwan because, while not being a member of the United Nations, Taiwan made the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2009 part of its domestic law.

The situation can thus be summarized in four statements. First, according to the prevailing United Nations interpretation, article 2 number 1 of the Covenant makes corruption a violation of humans rights. Second, Taiwan made the Covenant part of its domestic law and should respect it. Third, corruption played a key role in the unjust tax and enforcement persecution of Tai Ji Men, violating their human rights. Fourth, Taiwan should apply the Covenant and rectify the injustices vested on Tai Ji Men.