A lot of attention has been focused recently on an internal WHO memo that categorizes Taiwan as “Taiwan, Province of China.” Opposition parties accuse the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of allowing Taiwan’s sovereignty to be eroded through what they see as erroneous policies. The administration, of course, takes a different view, stressing its achievement in connecting Taiwan with international healthcare structures through its participation in the WHO.
It is no surprise that the government and its critics have conflicting views on this issue, but beyond that there are some more crucial and practical questions that need to be considered now that Taiwan has started participating in the WHO and other UN agencies as an observer.
The first relates to the official title under which Taiwan becomes a member or signatory of UN agencies. Taiwan has gained the right to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer, but the ultimate aim is to join as a full member. In the past, plans have been made to apply for WHO membership as a “health entity.”
The problem is the WHO is part of the UN system which only recognizes sovereign states as members.
As such, the WHO has not offered more relaxed conditions for membership, as has been the case with some international organizations that Taiwan has already joined, such as the WTO, which allows “separate customs territories” to become members, or regional fisheries management organizations, whose membership is open to “fishing entities.”
Unless the WHO agrees to change the status required for membership, there would still be an obstacle to Taiwan’s aim to gain membership. However, it is worth noting that there have been instances of other UN agencies amending the status required for membership. For example, it has been possible for some regional economic organizations, such as the EU, to become signatories to certain multilateral treaties alongside sovereign states.
The government has also set joining the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the International Civil Aviation Organization as priority targets for participation in the international community.
However, even if Taiwan were to take titles, such as an “environmental entity” or “aviation entity,” as the model for joining, it would still encounter organizational obstacles and questions about the price to be paid in political terms.
What should the government’s priority be? Should the emphasis be on making solitary breakthroughs or should it be on negations with the international community, including China, on questions of Taiwan’s participation in the UN system? The latter approach might enable Taiwan to apply to join various agencies in one package, which would be more efficient and save costs.
The second question relates to Taiwan’s existing legal relationship with the WHO. The WHO memo that has been in the news was issued in September last year. Its main purpose is to tell people working at the WHO how to handle technical and procedural questions to do with the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR) as they apply to Taiwan. Given that Taiwan is getting more involved in the international healthcare system, the WHO Secretariat must sooner or later deal with setting standard restrictions on Taiwan under the “one China” framework.