President Chen Shui-bian (
The WHO charter stipulates that membership is open to all countries, not just those in the UN. For Chen to use his position as head of state and representative of Taiwan's 23 million people to apply for membership is an extremely important first step in the nation's bid to join the WHO. Not only does it highlight that Taiwan is a sovereign and independent nation, but it also makes it clear that Taiwan wants to participate fully in the WHO, and that it is willing and determined to contribute to improving the health of all the world's people.
In consideration of its fundamental and long-term interests, this is the correct course for Taiwan to pursue. This is not the same as applying to be an observer in the World Health Assembly (WHA), which is a sub-organization of the WHO. The benefits of applying to be a full WHO member are far greater than becoming a WHA observer.
Official WHO members enjoy full rights within the organization, whereas observers are more like an audience in a meeting whose participation is greatly limited. Only official members have the right to make proposals, speak and participate. Only they have the right to vote on WHO policies and initiatives, or have people elected to important positions.
All WHO members are countries, whereas that is not necessarily true of observers. Fighting for an observer spot could easily mislead the international community into thinking that Taiwan is not an independent and sovereign nation.
As all this shows, WHO membership is open to all countries. Applicants need a simple majority of votes from WHO members to gain entrance, the same as those applying for WHA observer status. In terms of procedural difficulties, applying to the WHO is no more difficult than applying to the WHA.
Taiwan's biggest obstacle is Chinese opposition. In the past 10 years, Taiwan has humbled itself by applying for observer status in the WHA in order to avoid controversy over its sovereignty dispute with China. Beijing, however, has not responded positively, instead continuing to arrogantly insist Taiwan is a part of China and is not qualified to become a WHO member or WHA observer.
But international law and the plain facts show that Taiwan and China are two unconnected countries, each with its own jurisdiction. Therefore Taiwan wants to apply for WHO membership as a sovereign nation, not for WHA observer status as a "health entity."
In the past we sought to become WHA observers, but we have now entered a new stage of actively pursuing full WHO membership. As long as we choose the right direction, and people work closely together with the government with trust and resolve, our shared determination will see us through to success.
Chen Lung-chu is chairman of the New Century Foundation and director of the Taiwan United Nations Alliance.
Translated by Marc Langer