Despite Exclusion, Taiwan Lodges Protest at UN World Health Assembly

May 22, 2018 Updated: June 20, 2018

Despite exclusion by United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) due to Beijing’s political pressure, Taiwan has not been deterred from expressing its desire to be included in the World Health Assembly (WHA). Taiwan has mobilized its diplomatic allies to lodge a protest at the assembly, while the Taiwanese delegation and groups are now campaigning in Geneva to ensure that the exclusion of the island nation is in the spotlight at the opening of the annual global health meeting.

During the opening of the WHA meeting on May 21 in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 member-states of the WHO promptly submitted a proposal to invite Taiwan as an observer to the assembly. The proposal was rejected after debates were held at the General Committee meeting and also during the plenary session meeting.

All 15 member-states are diplomatic allies of Taiwan that still maintain official relations with the democratic island nation. Marshall Islands and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines spoke on Taiwan’s behalf and debated with the People’s Republic of China and Pakistan delegations that opposed Taiwan’s inclusion, before the motion was dismissed by WHA chairman.

Due to decades of political pressure from the Chinese regime, Taiwan is neither a member of the United Nations nor WHO. Taiwan was able to participate in the WHA with an “observer” status from 2009 to 2016, when the Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang Party was the president of the island nation.

Since the Democratic Progressive Party took power in 2016, however, the Chinese regime has ramped up the pressure and pushed the WHO to deprive Taiwan any official representation in the annual global meeting, which is supposed to be about promoting health for all people regardless of national origin.

Taiwan also dispatched an official delegation headed by Health Minister Chen Shih-chung to Geneva to hold a series of events on the sidelines of the WHA meeting, to make the point that Taiwan does not accept being excluded from the international community of health policy. Chen sent an official letter of protest to the WHO on May 21, citing Taiwan’s medical advances and its contribution to international health efforts.

In addition, a number of Taiwanese NGOs and activists are in Geneva this week to protest the exclusion of their country from the world’s biggest health assembly, which includes 194 member states. The largest of the protesting groups is the Taiwan United Nations Alliance (TAIUNA), a Taiwanese NGO that for 15 years has organized annual trips to the United States and Geneva to advocate for Taiwan’s inclusion in the UN and WHO.

Taiwanese activists from Taiwan United Nations Alliance gather in front of United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland on May 21, 2018 to protest the exclusion of Taiwan from the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO). (Taiwan United Nations Alliance)

Five parliament members from Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan also flew to Geneva and joined the TAIUNA group there, but just as is the case for Taiwan’s official delegation, the group can only access the meeting as members of the public rather than as representing Taiwan.

“Taiwan’s international status has been suppressed by China for a long time,” said Wang I Kai, a member of the TAIUNA group, “I come to Geneva to voice my wish for Taiwan to be included in WHA, where we have plenty to contribute.”

On May 21 the TAIUNA group encountered harassment from an unidentified Chinese man, who took issue with the “Taiwan can help” and “Health for All” badges wore by Lin Ching-yi, a legislator of Taiwan. He demanded the security guards at the venue not admit her and other Taiwanese in the group into the public access area of the WHA meeting.

Before the WHA meeting commenced, TAIUNA group members were also prohibited from wearing any shirts or badges showing the word “Taiwan” during “Walk the Talk,” a free run/walk public event organized by WHA on Sunday. This is despite the fact that WHA delegations and activists from other countries such as Malaysia and Thailand who also participated in the Sunday run could freely display their respective national flags.

While blocking the Taiwanese delegation and activists is not new, the UN Secretariat took a step further this year and denied accreditation to journalists from Taiwan, a move that has been promptly condemned by International Federation of Journalists (IFT), which blasted the UN as putting the political agenda of one country ahead of the wellbeing of all other people.

For its part, Beijing said that the exclusion of Taiwan from even WHA observer status since 2016 is to prove that the “one-China principle is the consensus of the international community and corresponds with the trend of the times,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang in a news briefing.

“In excluding Taiwan, the WHO is essentially condoning Beijing’s politicization of global health services,” said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, who points out that the WHO Director General tweeted about “health for all” yet denied Taiwan even an observer status in the assembly.

Beside Taiwan’s diplomatic allies who lodged official motions during the meeting, WHA delegations from Japan and Australia also supported Taiwan’s inclusion in the meeting and took the position that no place should be left behind in a world where diseases know no boundaries.

The United States also offered support, as Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar spoke on May 22 in front of the general assembly to express U.S. disappointment at Taiwan’s inability to attend.

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