Mon, Oct 29, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Oversights pose threat to foreign nationals


One often forgotten area of responsibility for national governments is ensuring the safety of their citizens abroad. Every now and then, we are re-minded of this requirement when natural catastrophes or war send governments scrambling to evacuate their nationals by the boatload, as we saw during Israel's war against Lebanon last year or whenever a credible terrorist threat is made against Western embassies in the Middle East.

How governments respond to threats against the security of their expatriates is largely informed by the threat and risk assessments formulated by various agencies involved in the process.

Those assessments, however, will only be as good as the information on which they are based and in a fluid environment such as the one in which we live today, where goods, information and people transit at unprecedented speed, how agencies obtain the necessary information is largely predicated on effective networks of communication.

Last week news emerged of a 10-day delay in the sharing of information with Taiwan. Beijing delayed sharing information from the International Food Safety Authorities Network -- a branch of the WHO -- with Taipei about contaminated baby corn from Thailand last month. Such a delay raises serious doubts about the body's ability to relay information.

Whether the delay was the result of politics or sheer ineptitude on Beijing's part remains to be determined, but regardless of the reason, this gap represents a threat not only to the security of Taiwanese but of all the expatriates who live in Taiwan.

If, as seems increasingly likely, Taiwan loses its direct access to WHO information and must instead rely on Beijing to obtain it (as Beijing would have it), governments will need to find ways to ensure adequate protection for their own citizens.

No matter the reason for last month's mishap on the contaminated baby corn, foreign governments must do what is necessary to avoid a repeat.

Given China's abysmal track record, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003 or the handful of contaminated food scandals this year, we can expect further gaps from Beijing in the timely and responsible feeding of information to the health network.

Furthermore, as a result of the unresolved crisis in the Taiwan Strait, any new arrangement between the WHO and Beijing that elbows Taipei out of the information loop can only give Beijing an additional weapon with which to pressure Taiwan, one that threatens an entire population.

It could withhold crucial information -- or threaten to do so -- on health matters for political considerations and hold 23 million Taiwanese and tens of thousands of expatriates hostage in the process to achieve political objectives.

Irrespective of their position on the Taiwan Strait conflict, national governments cannot allow Beijing to threaten the safety of their own citizens, neither through incompetence nor for more nefarious reasons like political blackmail.

Failure to build the necessary pressure on Beijing and the WHO to ensure that a situation like the one that occurred last month does not recur would ultimately be a failure by those governments to meet their obligations to their citizens abroad.

It is one thing for Washington, London, Ottawa or Berlin to look the other way when Beijing tramples the rights of Taiwanese, a blind spot that can be explained by self-interest and political realism. But to do so when the very safety of their own citizens is compromised by Beijing is a question of an altogether different nature and one for which foreign nationals should hold their governments accountable.

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