This month, the 61st annual World Health Assembly will convene in Geneva, Switzerland, as it has done every year since 1947. Also in May, the government of the medically advanced country Taiwan will make its 12th consecutive request for representation in the World Health Assembly. Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million people, has a larger population than three-quarters of the 193 member states of the Word Health Organization (WHO). To ban Taiwan from any form of representation in the WHO is to deny its 23 million citizens equal rights as human beings and to introduce an unnecessary level of risk to the global health network.
One perennial barrier prohibits Taiwan from being represented in the WHO — as well as the WHO’s parent body, the United Nations. That barrier is political boycotting by China, which possesses a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and uses its power to keep Taiwan out of the WHO. China’s opposition even bars Taiwan’s journalists from covering the annual World Health Assembly. This WHO policy runs against the UN goal of preserving international press freedoms, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The World Health Organization’s Constitution is based on the humanitarian principles set forth in the UN Charter.; iIts central, overriding objective is “the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health.” In order to achieve this, one of the functions mandated by the WHO Constitution is, “to furnish appropriate technical assistance and, in emergencies, necessary aid upon the request or acceptance of Governmentsgovernments.”
Why, then, was the government of Taiwan not promptly informed by the WHO on how to properly treat and contain Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and forced to fend for itself during the international SARS outbreak in 2003? Why was it not notified in 2007 when the WHO confirmed that Taiwan may have received shipments of baby corn from Thailand contaminated with Shigella sonn —the bacterium that causes dysentery?
Again, this question is all too easily answered: Iin each case Beijing stalled for weeks, prohibiting the WHO from directly relaying vital information to Taiwan’s health officials.
Taiwan knows the iimportance of a strong global health network. As late as the early 1960s, Taiwan was an underdeveloped country that relied greatly on WHO assistance to eradicate malaria, reduce the occurrence of tuberculosis, and provide essential healthcare to mothers and children. Today the citizens of Taiwan’s economically robust society believe it is their turn to reciprocate. Yet, without the ability to coordinate fully with WHO, Taiwan’s generous foreign assistance programs fall short of their full potential. Can the WHO defend its purported mission to improve healthcare in impoverished countries while excluding one of the world’s top economies from its membership rolls?
As Taiwan today is not able to sustain any level of collaboration with the world’s most vital health organization, Taiwan represents a major gap in the global health response network. It is therefore imperative that Taiwan be admitted as a full member of the WHO.
If this is not possible at present, then Taiwan should at least be invited to participate as an observer in this year’s World Health Assembly. The people of Taiwan are grateful for the support in recent years of such influential countries as the United States and Japan during Taiwan’s annual WHO appeal. Until this politically motivated and globally risky policy is abandoned, Taiwan’s government promises to make its case annually before the WHO and do its utmost to convince each and every country that Taiwan must be in the World Health Organization.