Be WHO? Be Taiwan

The Shunning Of a State

By Chen Shui-bian
Friday, May 11, 2007; A19

In recent years the outbreak and spread of avian flu has brought illness, death and economic peril to countries in Asia and elsewhere. Memories of the fear, pain and suffering that accompanied the 2003 SARS outbreak — after failed coverups by the Chinese government — are still vivid in many places. While disease heeds no national borders, Taiwan has had to fight pandemics without help from the World Health Organization — a humanitarian agency that is supposed to serve all humankind.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO, nor is it an observer at the World Health Assembly (WHA) — unlike the Palestinian Authority or the Malta Order of Chivalry. But under mounting international pressure prompted by fear of an avian flu pandemic, China was persuaded in 2005 to consent, in principle, to Taiwan’s meaningful participation in WHO conferences focusing on that threat. China conceded after demanding that the WHO secretariat sign a secret memorandum of understanding. As a result, Taiwan’s participation in the WHO is subject to China’s approval, even for technical meetings. Such participation is minimal rather than meaningful.

It is improper and unprecedented for an international humanitarian organization to enter into a secret pact with one of its member states, especially an authoritarian one. More important, the memorandum has been used to obstruct Taiwan’s participation in WHO activities. Our representatives were unable to attend the majority of conferences they sought admission to last year. The WHO secretariat has effectively jeopardized the health of people in Taiwan and other countries.

For a decade, we have striven relentlessly to participate in the WHO, to no avail. Even our humble pursuit of "meaningful participation" has yielded little success. With 95 percent of the Taiwanese people supporting full WHO membership, I must act upon the will of my people as a democratically elected president.

On April 11, I sent a letter to the WHO formally requesting our nation’s application for membership under the name "Taiwan." The secretariat responded on April 25, claiming that Taiwan is not a sovereign state and therefore is not eligible for WHO membership. This is legally and morally deplorable.

Article 3 of the Constitution of the World Health Organization stipulates: "Membership in the Organization shall be open to all States," while Article 6 provides that states such as Taiwan that are not members of the United Nations "may apply to become Members and shall be admitted as Members when their application has been approved by a simple majority vote of the Health Assembly." Rule 115 of the WHA Rules of Procedure stipulates that "Applications made by a State for admission to membership . . . shall . . . be addressed to the Director-General and shall be transmitted immediately" to WHO members.

Clearly, the authority to determine whether Taiwan is eligible for admission to the WHO belongs to its members, many of which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and cannot be co-opted by any individual or administrative office.

When East Germany applied for WHO membership in 1968, many questioned its sovereignty and the legitimacy of its government. But East Germany’s application was circulated, and although it was voted down that year, it was approved in 1973.

Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, is indisputably a sovereign state, satisfying all of the criteria cited in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Duties and Obligations of States: It has a permanent population, a defined territory, a functional government and the capacity to conduct relations with other states. It also has its own internationally traded currency and issues its own passport, honored by virtually all other nations.

Another broadly affirmed criterion for recognizing the legitimacy of a state is the principle, enunciated in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the sovereignty a state exercises should be based on the will of the people. A truly "sovereign" state, in other words, is free and democratic. We find no better words to describe Taiwan.

Ultimately, the question of Taiwan’s participation in the WHO is a moral one. The systematic shunning of Taiwan is unconscionable not only because it compromises the health of our 23 million people but also because it denies the world the benefit of our abundant public health and technical resources. Taiwan’s public and private sectors have donated more than $450 million in medical and humanitarian aid to more than 90 countries over the past 10 years.

We in Taiwan are grateful that many governments and legislative bodies such as the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament have supported our bid for observer status in the WHA. As humankind seeks to control global pandemics, victory will require collaboration that is not restricted by political obfuscation or subject to discriminatory picking and choosing of participants. We must not allow an all-but-one scenario to undermine our common mission — health for all.

The writer is president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

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