Tuesday, May 8, 2007

"One China" at the WHO?

President Chen Shui-bian recently sent a WHO membership application letter directly to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. Shortly afterwards, Chan said in an interview with CNN that the "one China" policy was the principle guiding the WHO and that she would use this principle as a guiding light on issues regarding Taiwan.

Some pundits have argued that Chan's position would put Taiwan into a more difficult situation. The Foundation of Medical Professionals Alliance in Taiwan, which has dedicated itself for a long time to to promoting "Taiwan for the WHO," would like to shed some light on the situation.

It is important first to distinguish between observer status and full membership. There is no such a thing as observer status in the WHO Constitution. Reference to this status, however, is made in the body's Rules of Procedure. The concept of observer status has therefore emerged through practice.

Observers can only take part in the one-week World Health Assembly (WHA) held annually in May, where WHO members meet to discuss and share information on epidemics. Only mini-states, such as the Holy See, and non-governmental organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have observer status at the WHA.

Observer status is deliberated upon and ultimately granted by the WHA.

But should the WHO abide by the "one China" principle? In April 2004, the WHO's former director-general, Lee Jong-wook of South Korea, made a comment similar comment to Chang's, but WHO spokesman Iain Simpson said that Lee's remark had been misquoted and there was no such a thing as a "one China" principle at the WHO.

Applications for membership, he said, should therefore be determined by member states, while the WHO secretariat had no authority on this issue.

Since there is no provision in the WHO Constitution and the WHA Rules of Procedure specifying the director-general's right to decide whether certain entities are states or not, and given the political sensitivity of the issue, WHO chiefs have turned to various avoidance techniques.

East Germany's application in 1968 provides an illuminating example. At the time, West Germany was already a WHO member and complied with the "one Germany" policy, known as the Hallstein Doctrine. The WHO director-general at the time took two separate actions after receiving the East's application: He first circulated the application and placed it on the WHA agenda, making a formal reference to the Rules of Procedure. To avoid having to make a decision on his own, he then sent a letter to WHO members in which he argued that East Germany's application would need to be debated at the WHA.

In 1972, the director-general used Rule 3 of the Rules of Procedure, which states that "the director-general may invite states having made application for membership to send observers to sessions of the health assembly."

That year, East Germany sent observers to attend the WHA meeting and became a WHO member the next year.

Given this precedent, Chang's statements undoubtedly went beyond a director-general's remit. As such, we call on the director-general to abide by the established procedures rather than make her own political preferences policy.

Twice in the past -- in 1997 and 2004 -- Taiwan applied for observer status at the WHA, but the content of the application was in fact "whether to place Taiwan's application for WHA observership on the agenda of the assembly." This was therefore merely a matter of procedure rather than a vote on a substantive issue.

This year, however, Chen used Rule 3 of the Rules of Procedure to apply for membership, which should have resulted in an invitation by the WHO director-general to participate as an observer. This strategy was meant to prevent procedure from being used to block Taiwan's application and dovetailed with US and Japanese support for Taiwan to obtain observer status at the WHA.

Since its very beginning, the WHO has stressed the universality of membership. Applicants can become full members with the approval of half of member states, without any possibility of a veto.

During the early 1950s, West Germany and Japan were still under occupation, meaning that their external relations were being handled by the occupying powers. Nevertheless, they both became members of the WHO.

For the WHO to spend large amounts of resources and budgets trying to build a seamless global epidemic prevention network while excluding Taiwan is as unconscionable as it is illogical.

Lin Shih-chia

Executive director, Foundation of Medical Professionals Alliance in Taiwan

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