(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday called on the head of the World Health Organization to invite Taiwan to take part as an observer in the upcoming World Health Assembly, but officials at the U.N. health agency continue to insist that the matter is one for WHO member-states, not the secretariat.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Pompeo urged WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom “to invite Taiwan to observe this month’s WHA, as he has the power to do, and as his predecessors have done on multiple occasions.”
He also called on other countries to support Taiwan’s participation at the WHA, which will be held in a virtual and truncated form beginning May 18, focusing almost exclusively on the coronavirus pandemic.
WHO’s relations with the U.S. are strained over the Trump administration’s claims that it has been overly deferential to China and unwilling to challenge Beijing over the latter’s controversial handling of the outbreak in its early stages.
President Trump has ordered a pause in new contributions to WHO, pending a review. The U.S. has been the biggest funder by far since the agency’s founding in 1948.
Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation is the consequence of a U.N. General Assembly vote almost half a century ago that expelled Taiwan and gave the “China” seat at the U.N. to the communist government in Beijing.
The vast majority of the world’s nations comply with China’s position that the island democracy of 23 million people is a rebel province, part of “one China.” On that basis, Taiwan has been shut out of the annual WHA, WHO’s supreme decision-making body, for most of the last five decades.
As Pompeo alluded to, there have been exceptions, and from 2009 through 2016 Taiwan was invited as an observer each year. But that only happened because Beijing permitted it, as a sop to the then- Kuomintang government in Taipei, which favored better ties with the mainland.
As soon as the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party returned to power, China withdrew its consent, and Taiwan has been shut out again since 2017.
‘Our principles of neutrality and impartiality’
The question of whether Tedros “has the power to” invite Taiwan, as stated by Pompeo, remains in dispute.
At two separate WHO virtual press briefings in Geneva this week, legal officials indicated that he doesn’t.
“The involvement, if any, of Taiwanese observers in that assembly is a question for the 194 governments of WHO,” the agency’s principal legal officer, Steve Solomon, said at Monday’s briefing. “This is not something that WHO’s secretariat has authority to decide.”
“It is not the role of WHO staff to be involved in geopolitical issues,” Solomon added. “In fact our principles of neutrality and impartiality exist to keep us out of those issues and to promote the role of evidence-based science in all our work.”
At Wednesday’s briefing, a reporter asked Tedros if he would encourage WHO member-states, particularly China, to allow Taiwan to attend. And, he added, “I understand that you have the authority to invite them yourself. Would you do that if China continues to resist there?”
Tedros deferred to WHO legal counsel Derek Walton, who echoed his colleague’s words from two days earlier – and made the point of calling the island “Taiwan, China.”
“The question is for the Health Assembly,” Walton said. “It’s for the member-states, rather than the secretariat.”
‘… whose attendance was not controversial’
Under a previous director-general, CNSNews.com asked the WHO some years ago about the question of his discretion to invite observers to take part in the WHA.
At the time, WHO explained that entities could obtain observer status via three different routes.
Firstly, WHO could invite as observers any international organization, accredited non-governmental organization, or state whose application for full WHO membership was pending.
Secondly, WHO could invite entities in line with specific WHA resolutions, such as a 1974 resolution requesting that the DG invite “national liberation movements” to participate. On that basis the PLO, and later the “State of Palestine” (despite not being a sovereign or U.N. member state) has been a regular participant.
And thirdly, “there has been a long-standing practice whereby the director-general has in his discretion extended an invitation to certain entities to attend the Health Assembly as an observer.”
WHO pointed out, however, that that discretion had only been exercised in cases of “entities having a status in international law and whose attendance was not controversial.” Past beneficiaries have included the Knights of Malta.
CNSNews.com asked the WHO this week whether those three routes to observer participation were still valid, and if they were, whether there was any reason for Tedros not to use his discretion to invite Taiwan this year. As of press time, WHO had not responded.