When the World Health Organization (WHO) opens its annual meeting in Geneva on Monday, some 100 Taiwanese doctors will be rallying outside the conference hall to demand that the WHO admit Taiwan as an observer.
Wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Health For All With Taiwan," the protesters will hand out leaflets and tell passers-by that Taiwan deserves WHO observer status.
The 56th World Health Assembly (WHA) will be held in Geneva from Monday through May 28. The meeting will approve a South Korean, Dr. Lee Jong-wook, to replace Gro Harlem Bruntland as WHO director general, discuss the SARS outbreak and adopt the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
But on the sidelines of the meeting, China and Taiwan will be fighting a diplomatic battle over Taiwan's joining the WHO. In 1997 Taiwan launched its campaign to rejoin the organization. It hopes to become a WHO observer first so that it can attend the WHA.
Last year, three of Taiwan's diplomatic allies submitted a motion asking WHA to discuss giving observer status to Taipei. The WHO's executive board killed the motion with a vote of 20 to three. Taiwan's allies have submitted the motion again this year and hope it can generate more publicity.
On May 9, President Chen Shui-bian (
"SARS has brought illness to the whole world ... and further underscored the necessity for global cooperation in fighting plagues," Chen said in his letter to the Washington Post. "If there is an ideal time for WHO to accept Taiwan, it is now."
On May 3, China agreed to the WHO sending two experts to Taiwan to assess the SARS situation, marking the WHO's first contact with Taiwan in 30 years. But the government said the WHO's help came too late and is too little.
"WHO has not provided daily SARS updates to Taiwan. We have to search for the latest information on the WHO Web site," Lee Ming-liang, head of the Cabinet's SARS task force, said on Monday.
On Sunday and Monday, Japan's health minister and foreign minister urged the WHO to grant observer status to Taiwan. The US Congress and EU have passed resolutions early this year backing its WHO bid.
The battle to rejoin WHO is tough and long.
In a dispatch from Geneva, the Central News Agency said China has braced itself to block Taiwan from becoming a WHO observer during the upcoming WHA.
"China has distributed a newsletter to all UN members, saying the question of China's seat in the WHO was solved when UN expelled Taiwan in 1971 and when the WHO expelled Taiwan in 1972. Only China can represent Taiwanese compatriots in the WHO," the agency quoted the newsletter as saying.
The newsletter says China has taken various measures to help Taiwan fight SARS, including inviting Taiwanese experts to SARS seminars in China and allowing the WHO to send experts to Taiwan.
"China has formed medical teams. They are ready to leave for Taiwan any time to help Taiwan control SARS," the newsletter said, adding that Taipei was using SARS "to incite its diplomatic allies to split China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The WHO has 192 members and six observers -- the Vatican, the Palestinian Authority, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Liechtenstein and Malta. To become a WHO observer, Taiwan needs approval from half of WHO members or an invitation from the WHO's director general.