As government officials have said, the WHO does not have any permanent observers, but the organization’s legal advisers say that a “semi-permanent” observer mechanism has been developed and that these observers are invited by the World Health Assembly (WHA) director-general to participate in the WHA each year. This is a significant difference.
These observers are divided into three groups. The Vatican is the only “non-member state observer.” Then there are “observers” that are selected and invited by the director-general, including the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. These observers are not countries.
The third category consists of observers invited in accordance with WHA resolutions Nos. 27 and 37. The Palestinian territories are the only observer in this category and require the special step of an invitation by the general assembly.
It would be difficult for China to accept Taiwan as a non-member state observer because this would be a form of dual recognition. Since the Taiwanese government has also repeatedly rejected the option of dual recognition, following the example of the Vatican is not feasible.
The model of the Palestinian territories, on the other hand, avoids the question of national status altogether, leaving a gray area for Taipei and Beijing to each interpret in their own way. This tallies with the government’s policy of pursuing neither independence nor unification, and, based on a WHA resolution, future directors-general would be required to invite Taiwan each year.
To achieve this, a WHA resolution would be necessary, but none of Taiwan’s allies has submitted a motion to the general assembly, which means that the chances for a resolution are slim.
The other option is for Taiwan to become a non-state observer on an annual basis at the invitation of the director-general. The regulations state that such an observer is not a country and there is no room for interpretation. Although the director-general invites these entities annually according to convention, he or she does not have an obligation to do so. Taiwan’s situation is unique and could not be treated as routine.
Accepting this observer status would be tantamount to denying that Taiwan is a country, since the WHO Secretariat would invite Taiwan as an observer based on the memorandum of understanding that it signed with Beijing in 2005. And yet, even if Taiwan belittled itself in this manner, the secretariat would be under no obligation to invite it. How would Taiwan react if the secretariat found some pretext to snub it?
I urge the government not to make reckless decisions simply for domestic political goals lest Taiwan’s international position be dealt another damaging blow.
Chiang Huang-chih is an associate professor in the Department of Law at National Taiwan University.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG