With the World Health Assembly (WHA) that took place in Geneva this week, Taiwanese legislators from both the pan-blue and pan-green camps have talked about Taiwan becoming a state member of the WHO. Aside from the conventional challenges (for example, Taiwan’s status of independence) concerning the nation’s engagement in the UN, the implications of Taiwan’s full WHO membership require more explanation to be better understood.
The key implication is the “cascade effect” that Taiwan’s full membership of one UN body could have on other UN bodies. What this means is that Taiwan’s membership in the WHO could trigger its full membership in other specialized UN agencies.
This is possible because the constitutions of the UN’s specialized agencies, such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the UN Industrial Development Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization, have statutes which declare that membership is open to any state that is “a member of the UN, any of its specialized agencies or the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Similarly, the constitutions for UN funds and programs including the UN Environment Program, UN Human Settlements Program and the World Food Program have statutes declaring “Any state member of the UN or member of a specialized agency or of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is not a member of the [governing body], may participate in the deliberations of the [governing body] in the capacity of observer.”
Moreover, the constitution of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) states that “any state member thereof or observers thereto not party to the convention may be represented at sessions of the Conference of the Parties as observers.” Keeping in mind that the government of Taiwan is formally seeking observership in the UNFCCC, this goal will automatically be achieved once Taiwan becomes a full WHO member.
The UN bodies mentioned above differ from other UN organizations (for example, the International Civil Aviation Organization — the other UN agency that Taiwan is formally seeking observership in) because their constitutions and procedural rules do not decree that admission for membership and/or observership is subject to a vote or approval by existing member states. The rules merely state that membership is “open” and states “may” participate as an observer.
This ambiguity may work both ways. On the one hand, there is no legal basis on which to deny Taiwan membership and/or observership once it becomes a full WHO member. On the other hand, Taiwan’s application may be denied because there is no statute guaranteeing its admission either.
The other important implication is for US-Taiwan relations. Under the US’ “one China” policy, it supports Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement, but it “... do[es] not support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations that require statehood.” Accordingly, not only will Taiwan have to fight on its own in its quest for full WHO membership, it will have to do so against the wishes of its strongest ally. With Taiwan and the US entangled on a number of delicate issues such as the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, visa waivers and the sale of F-16C/D fighter jets, it must be sensitive to any repercussions this may cause.