The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently debating whether to include in the amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR) language that would extend those regulations to "independent health territories" such as Taiwan. If the proposal for such an amendment by Taiwan's allies such as the US, Nicaragua, and Paraguay is accepted, it would be a major step forward in Taiwan's long campaign to join the health organization.
The WHO members adopted the International Sanitary Regulations -- later renamed the IHR -- as early as 1951. The goal of the IHR is to prevent and minimize the spread of communicable diseases across borders, with the initial focus on cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, relapsing fever and typhus. The origin of the IHR can be traced all the way back to the early 1800s, when cholera epidemics swept Europe and led to the first International Sanitary Conference in 1851, one the earliest attempts at multilateral cooperation to control the spread of epidemics. Within the next five decades, several conventions on the spread of infectious disease across borders were negotiated.
The history of the IHR shows the dire need for international cooperation to control epidemics. This need has become even more acute with the rapid increase in international travel. No one country in its right mind can believe that it can slam the door on infectious diseases spreading through its borders from other parts of the world. No one country can shy away from its duty as a member of the globalized world to cooperate with other members in combating epidemics, regardless of where a disease originated. Nor can any country be complacent about the threat posed to its people's health by communicable diseases, when the helping hands of an international cooperative mechanism does not reach its borders.
Unfortunately, Taiwan to this day continues to be shut out of such a cooperative mechanism, despite the fact that it is in other ways a fully-participating member of the international community. The people of Taiwan continue to be deprived of the benefits of the WHO. Any government that allows this to happen to its people should be condemned. Except, of course, this did not happen to Taiwan by choice. Dispute the Taiwan government's earnest and prolonged effort, the malicious obstruction from the Chinese government -- which claims Taiwan is not a sovereign state and merely a Chinese province -- has persuaded the WHO to shut its doors to Taiwan.
Under the circumstances, it is of course not surprising that the amendment proposed by Taiwan's allies has met with strong Chinese objection. China cites as reasons for excluding Taiwan the fact that "territory" is not a legally recognized concept under public international law, that the WHO is an inter-governmental organization and that the IHR is a treaty between countries.
One cannot help but wonder, in a situation where people's health is concerned and lives are at stake, should priority instead be given to political and legal disputes? The truth is that the Chinese government does not effectively govern Taiwan and it cannot represent Taiwan on health-related issues. At the same time, Taiwan remains isolated, with no recourse to the WHO's health "safety net." If this situation is allowed to continue, the people of Taiwan and also people in other countries will be exposed to serious health threats.