Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Let's make room for a referendum on the WHO

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德

Taiwan's seventh attempt to join the World Health Organiza-tion (WHO) has been shot down by China's political interference. The opposition's reaction to the World Health Assembly's (WHA) decision to exclude Taiwan's bid for observer status from its agenda was shameful.

The government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all condemned Beijing's duplicity. While intentionally blocking Taiwan's bid for participation in the WHO, Beijing publicly lied to the WHA that it has lent a helping hand to Taiwan. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) even proposed a referendum on whether Taiwan should be allowed into the WHO in order to display to the world the determination of the country to join the global health network.

Pan-blue leaders have sneered at Chen's suggestion. While accusing Beijing of "unwisely" blocking Taiwan's bid for the WHO, KMT Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) poured cold water on the plebiscite idea, saying that a referendum wasn't necessary be-cause it "politicizes the issue." PFP Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) argued that "to support Taiwan's bid for the WHO is like eating -- there is no need to hold a referendum to decide if one is hungry."

Pan-blue legislators further implied that Chen is trying to distract public attention away from the government's poor handling of the SARS epidemic.

These arguments are baseless and prove only that the Lien-Soong ticket is against the will of Taiwan's 23 million people.

First, it is Beijing that has been politicizing Taipei's participation in the WHO. China's foreign ministry has reiterated that "Taiwan, as a province of China, is not entitled to join the WHO or participate in any capacity." Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi (吳儀) shed crocodile tears and lied to the world about how much concern and assistance it has shown to Taiwan.

Taiwan has been trying to avoid political controversy with its WTO bid by seeking observer status as a "health entity," not as a sovereign state. The WTO recognizes it as an "economic entity." At international tuna-management conferences, it is a "fishing entity." What the public wants is participation. There is no justifiable reason to deny Taiwan a constructive role in the world health system.

Second, participation in the WHO is not as simple as eating a meal. Most people in Taiwan, including ruling and opposition parties, agree Taiwan should not be excluded from the world health system. What separates the pan-green and pan-blue camps is the strategy to reach such a goal. The Chen administration has been trying to downplay the WHO bid to the level of pure health concerns. What better alternative has the opposition offered?

What scares the pan-blue camp about referendums is the possibility of "creeping" independence. They are afraid that the DPP might use a referendum law as a tool to hold a plebiscite and decide the country's future. Such a mentality tends to politicize the issue and falls into the unification-independence dichotomy.

In any advanced democracy, the right to health and to hold a referendum are fundamental rights and the significance of a referendum would be to create a consensus and clearly express the public's resolve.

If the opposition is worried about the trouble the referendum might create in terms sensitive issues such as national identity or relations with China, they could work with the DPP to clearly define the agenda of the referendum. A referendum law could likely limit its scope to local issues or non-political issues. If an official referendum is not available, there should be room for consultative referendums. The opposition must have justifiable reasons to convince people why they can not exercise such unalienable rights.

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