Clash Looms at WHO Meeting Over Taiwan

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - As the World Health Organization prepared to open its annual session in Geneva Monday, Taiwan - which has been shut out of the WHO at China's insistence - reported a deepening health crisis there.

The island democracy hopes the outbreak of the SARS virus may help its campaign for membership in the WHO, which is the U.N. agency leading the global anti-SARS effort.

Taiwan has rapidly overtaken Singapore and Canada to become the third worst SARS-affected area, after mainland China and Hong Kong.

On Sunday, the island reported the largest single-day jump in infections, 36, as well as four more deaths from the pneumonia-like virus, for which no cure has yet been found.

Taiwan's death toll now stands at 40, higher than that of Singapore (28) and Canada (23). Mainland China has reported 284 deaths, and Hong Kong, 247, according to WHO figures.

In Taiwan, more than eleven out of every 100 patients infected so far have died. The figure for China is considerably lower (5.4 percent) although Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada all had mortality rates of 13-16 percent.

Taiwan's health minister resigned Friday in a gesture of responsibility for the worsening situation.

Every year the WHO holds its annual world health assembly in Geneva, and each year for the past six, Taiwan's bid for membership or observer status in the organization has been dashed by an unyielding Beijing, which regards the island of 23 million people as a renegade province.

Analysts predict no change this year, as China has not relented in its opposition to Taiwan's recognition, and few governments appear willing to annoy Beijing.

"The ironies of these circumstances have not changed the politics of the issue," writes David G. Brown of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in a publication of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

"The spread of SARS to Taiwan has not ameliorated Beijing's opposition to any Taiwan involvement with the WHO," Brown says, adding: "Nor is the outcome of this year's debate likely to be any different."

Last Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue gave no indication Beijing would budge on the issue.

Noting that "statehood is required" for WHO membership, Zhang said "Taiwan, as a province of China, is not entitled to join the WHO or participate in the WHO as an observer."

She said the two sides of the Taiwan Strait had been cooperating well in fighting SARS, and "there is no reason for Taiwan to use SARS as an excuse to join any international organization."

'Shameless lie'

Nonetheless, pro-Taiwan campaigners have told that the SARS crisis, along with a statement of strong support from the U.S. representative, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, may help bring the goal closer.

Japan has also for the first time agreed to support Taiwan's bid, according to officials in Taipei.

Taiwan and its backers are pointing out that the government blocking Taiwan from benefiting from WHO expertise is the same one that was widely criticized for its own inept handling of the outbreak that first emerged in areas under its control.

They say China's oft-repeated argument that it takes responsibility for the health needs of the people of Taiwan had been exposed as patently untrue, noting that Beijing only allowed WHO inspectors to visit Taiwan seven weeks after the first SARS case was reported.

Taiwan has sent lawmakers, doctors and others to lobby at this year's Geneva gathering.

One of them, opposition lawmaker Sun Kauo-hwa, told a press conference before leaving Taiwan that the mainland government's claim to have taken care of Taiwanese health care needs was a "shameless lie."

"Beijing had ruined its international reputation by concealing the country's real [SARS] infection situation and by claiming falsely that it is supervising Taiwan's epidemic containment," the Taipei Times quoted Sun as saying.

In the run up to the Geneva meeting, the WHO at the weekend held a video-conference discussing SARS epidemiological issues with experts from 16 countries, and a Taiwanese epidemiologist was allowed to participate, to share Taiwan's SARS information with other countries.

Taiwanese media reported that this was believed to be the first time in decades the island had participated in a WHO conference of this type.

Although a founder member of the WHO, Taiwan lost its membership when its seat at the United Nations was handed to the communist mainland in 1971.

In recent months, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have passed resolutions calling on the Administration to back Taiwan's bid for WHO observer status.

Speaking in Geneva on Sunday, U.S. representative Thompson said it was important for Taiwan to be granted observer status because it was good for all countries to have as much information about SARS as was possible, as quickly as possible.

Although WHO membership is limited to sovereign states, criteria for observer status are not set down.

Pro-Taiwan lobbyists draw attention to the fact that groups like Yasser Arafat's PLO and the Order of Malta, a Catholic relief organization, have permanent observer status at U.N. bodies.

Taiwan would need the support of at least half the body's 192 members to succeed in its bid to become an observer.

See also:
Taiwan Backers Seek US Support in WHO Bid (May 9, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow