Words by Kai-Yuan Cheng in Geneva
Cartoon by Stellina Chen

As the World Health Assembly (WHA) convened in Geneva on May 22, Taiwan was not given observer status for the first time since 2009.

As happens at each assembly, researchers, students, civil society members and individuals from around the world who are not part of a national delegation also gathered in Geneva to attend the meeting as public attendees to engage in discussions and collect up-to-date information on various global health topics.

This year, given the unique circumstances facing Taiwan – it did not receive an invitation because of pressure from China – the country’s government officials joined the queue of people lining up to request badges to enter the venue.

It was to their great disappointment, however, that a new “rule” was enforced as of this year. Twenty Taiwanese, including independent researchers and academics, queuing outside the WHO headquarters from 6:00 a.m., were informed that one must be in possession of a passport from “a United Nations member state or a WHA observer” in order to acquire a public badge.

This effectively eliminated the possibility of any Taiwanese passport holder attending the WHA as a public attendee.

While a number of Taiwanese did manage to get into the meeting as NGO representatives, several veteran WHA participants, among them experienced global health researchers, were denied the access they have been granted for several years.

Despite the fact that Taiwan is severely underrepresented in this year’s WHA, Taiwan and the issues surrounding the country received rare attention from the general assembly.

Voices of support

By the close of the first day, a number of countries had already explicitly spoken about Taiwan’s exclusion. This included Dr. Thomas Price, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Resources and head of the U.S. delegation to the WHA. Price, speaking to the general assembly, said it was the United States’ disappointment that an invitation was not extended to Taiwan. He went on to say that the United States remains committed that Taiwan should not be excluded from the WHO.

Immediately following Price, the Germany’s Minister of Health Hermann Groeh – who is also this year’s G8 president – said Germany was in favor of a broad and meaningful participation without exception, and it was regretted that it was not possible this year to invite all observers that attended during the last year.

Taiwan received yet another immediate mention when Burkina Faso, a diplomatic ally of Taiwan, was given the floor from Germany and explicitly called for the WHO to accept Taiwan as an official member. After an hour, a similar appeal was reiterated by the delegate from Australia.

It was the most attention given to Taiwan from member states in recent years.

While the speeches themselves had no immediate effect on Taiwan’s status, they are certainly valuable reminders to the global health community of Taiwan’s exclusion.

Procedural bid snuffed out by China

There was also a multinational attempt to include Taiwan carried out by a number of its diplomatic allies.

According to WHA procedural rules, member states can propose supplementary items to be added to the agenda. Such a proposal will be discussed by a closed-door committee in charge of producing the provisional agenda, formally known as the General Committee. The General Committee will come up with a recommendation on whether or not to entertain the proposal. The final decision, however, is left for the General Assembly to make and it will be presented with the proposal and recommendation from the General Committee.

On May 19, three days before the WHA kicked off, 11 of Taiwan’s 21 diplomatic allies, including Paraguay, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Palau, submitted a proposal calling for the supplementary item “inviting Taiwan to participate in the World Health Assembly as an observer” to be added to the agenda.

As explained, such a proposal will be reviewed by the General Committee and then voted upon by the General Assembly. There should be not confusion about the fact that this voting procedure is to not to decide on the content of the proposal – to invite Taiwan to the WHA – but to decide whether this is to be added to the agenda and to therefore undergo a more vigorous discussion.

On the first day of the WHA, this proposal, was presented to the General Assembly along with the General Committee’s recommendation to not entertain the proposal, referencing the same decisions made in the past about similar proposals. The president of the General Assembly then opened up the floor for countries to speak either for or against the recommendation of the General Committee.

China’s delegate was the first to speak on the recommendation to suspend this proposal. China claimed that the decision of Beijing to allow Taiwan to join the WHA as an observer for the past eight years was based on the Taiwanese government’s abidance to the so-called “one-China policy,” and that this privilege has been taken back as the Taiwanese government no longer endorses the “one-China policy.” China further referenced Resolution 2758 of the United Nations and Resolution 25.1 of the WHO, which ascertained that the People’s Republic of China should be the only legitimate representative of China in the U.N. system.

China’s statement was followed by the representative from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who began by condemning the decision of the WHO to exclude Taiwan as “a slap in the face” of the WHO to be a “genuine world forum.” Deeming that the “one-China policy” to be a “fictional fuss that must be rejected,” the delegate of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said it was an objective fact that an autonomous government has been executing sovereignty in Taiwan for decades, as does a modern nation state. In regard to Resolution 2758, he noted that it does not specify whether the sovereignty of the PRC extends to Taiwan and thus the Resolution itself does not rule out the possibility of inviting Taiwan as an observer to the WHA.

After Cuba took to the stand and echoed China’s assertion, Palau was the last country of the four recognized by the president to speak on this proposal. Palau started by warning that the decision to not invite Taiwan was a violation of the very core values of the WHO, namely health as a basic human right and no one should be left behind. The delegate came to the conclusion that political issues such as the statehood of Taiwan should be settled in another arena.

Without sufficient momentum on the side in favor of the Taiwan invitation, however, the recommendation of the General Committee to not entertain this item addition was passed. The disappointment was keenly felt by the group of Taiwanese civil society members gathered outside the Palais de Nations – for at least two consecutive decades the group has been in Geneva to protest during the WHA.

While all efforts to draw attention to Taiwan's unfavorable circumstances may seem futile, they are a rare chance for “the Taiwan issue” to be discussed at a United Nations conference.

Without the endeavors of Taiwan and its supporters, it would perhaps be much easier for the global community to forget that extra moral courage is still needed to make the WHO a true organization for the health of the world.

Editor: Olivia Yang