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Op-Ed in Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal
Review & Outlook
May 7, 2003

Let Taiwan Into the WHO

What will it take before the United Nations will put human lives above China's political posturing? Taiwanese doctors quarantined in their SARS wards are still waiting for an answer to that question.

Over the past weekend, the U.N.'s World Health Organization sent a team to the island to help tackle Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. But it seems clear that this was only possible because it got Beijing's blessing to take this limited step (although the WHO denies this). China claims Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory, and is so relentless in its drive to deprive the island of any recognition as a separate entity that it is prepared to endanger the health of Taiwanese by keeping them out of the WHO.

Some may prematurely conclude that Beijing's decision to allow the WHO doctors to make their trip as a sign that Beijing is relenting. If only it were so. More likely, China is trying to preempt criticism that its politicking in the U.N. has translated into lost lives as a result of the rapid spread of the SARS virus. Beijing is worried because another vote on whether to grant Taiwan observer status within the WHO is coming up later this month, and Taiwan's chances of admission should be better than ever.

Incredibly, Taiwan hasn't had any official contact with the WHO since it lost its U.N. seat in 1971. In 1997 the island's government launched a bid for observer status. This would seem to be an uncontroversial move. The Vatican, Lichtenstein, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the International Red Cross have all held this status, so it needn't signal any kind of recognition of Taiwan as a separate state from China, as Beijing seems to fear. In fact, Taiwan has resorted to applying as a "health entity," rather than a government, in order to overcome Chinese objections.

Nevertheless, China and its allies have managed to defeat Taiwan's last six applications, saying that it is unacceptable for Taiwan to belong to the WHO in any capacity. Why? Well, because China accepts the responsibility of caring for the health of its Taiwanese compatriots.

That line looks pretty ridiculous in light of the way China covered up the emergence of the very disease that now threatens Taiwan. Evidently Beijing realizes this, and that's why last week it relented and allowed two WHO doctors specializing in epidemiology and virology to go the island. They will likely stay until May 16, just three days before the opening of the World Health Assembly, the body to which all the WHO's 191 member states and groups send representatives.

On the agenda, as always, is the possible admission of new members. No doubt Beijing will argue that Taiwan wants to join in order to further its campaign for international recognition. And that the visit by the WHO doctors this month shows that in another crisis Taiwan's lack of membership wouldn't impair the ability of the international community to render aid.

Both of these arguments are wrong. Taiwan may be pursuing a campaign for international recognition, but that is not the reason its health authorities want to be in the WHO. There have been health crises in Taiwan before SARS in which the WHO was not able to respond, such as the 1998 outbreak of Type 71 enterovirus, which afflicted 300,000 children and killed 80, and the aftermath of a large earthquake in 1999.

Moreover, in any crisis, rapid response is key. Taiwan shouldn't have to wait while Beijing ponders whether to give permission. In the case of SARS, the disease was already spreading in the community before the WHO got China's go-ahead to send help.

Beijing's allies in the WHO should also consider what the body would gain from Taiwan's help. The island's doctors are already active in international health issues. As a developed economy, Taiwan can afford to contribute to the improvement of health care in poorer nations.

The U.S. and Japan have supported Taiwan's past applications to join the WHO, but they have been blocked by France, Spain, Pakistan, Argentina and India, among others. These countries' diplomats should be ashamed of playing Beijing's political game at the expense of the world's health. Because of them, the WHO hasn't lived up to its charter, which sets as its objective "the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health." It's time to stop letting Beijing block that noble ideal.
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