Back to Important Issues

Back to WHO

WHO 2003 Campaign 

Op-Ed in Washington Post

Shutting Out Taiwan

Washington Post, Tuesday, May 20, 2003; Page A18

WITHIN DAYS of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Singapore, the World Health Organization sent experts to help the Singaporean government deal with the disease. After SARS appeared in Taiwan, however, more than six weeks passed before the WHO sent two experts to Taipei. Worse, Taiwanese doctors have had difficulty gaining access to information about the disease, and Taiwanese data have not been published as rapidly as data from other countries. These differences reflect the fact that Taiwanese statehood, according to a surreal but long-standing international tradition, is not recognized by the United Nations or almost anyone else. For many years now, Taiwan has tried to persuade the WHO to at least grant it the same observer status the organization gives to the Vatican, the Palestinian Authority and the Order of Malta. Yesterday it failed once again, when the WHO decided not to consider a motion to allow Taiwan to attend the organization's annual general meeting in Geneva as an observer. Although the United States supports a change in Taiwan's status, American diplomacy failed once again to persuade enough others to agree.

The explanation is straightforward: China -- which spends an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to prevent Taiwan from ever being recognized for any reason at all. On this page today, we publish a letter from an official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, arguing that Taiwan is merely using the SARS epidemic as a tool to gain WHO observer status and acknowledgment of its de facto independence. But the opposite is equally true: For years, China has used its political power in the United Nations system as a tool to prevent Taiwan from gaining access to the technical expertise of the WHO. In an era when diseases such as SARS travel quickly across borders, this is no longer

Like many others, we have had cause in recent weeks to praise the WHO for its transformation over the past few years from one of the most poorly run U.N. agencies into the more effective institution it has become under its current leader, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The WHO has been widely commended for its rapid reaction to the outbreak of SARS. But continued reform of the organization, like reform of other U.N. agencies, does not merely consist of making the bureaucracy more efficient. For the U.N. system to be taken seriously, it also has to junk some of the political baggage it has acquired over the years. The WHO needs to recognize that China's musty objection to Taiwanese independence is no longer a good reason to deny Taiwan the help it needs to combat the health problems of the future.

2003 The Washington Post Company

Any questions? Please email: