Debate over Taiwan stirs Geneva diplomatic circles ahead of the World Health Assembly

Taipei's Grand Hotel lit with the word 'ZERO' to mark absence of new coronavirus cases in Taiwan (Photo: ©Keystone, David Chang)

Thirteen member states recently submitted a proposal to support Taiwan’s participation as an observer at the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, due to convene next Monday (18 April) in a virtual session. The move, inspired by the US, is perceived by China as an open slight. It has stirred fears in the Geneva diplomatic community that the two-day Assembly, which is supposed to build a strong global consensus around the next steps of Covid-19 response, could devolve into a political debate over the volatile issue of Taiwan, claimed by China. We asked Wang Liang-Yu, Taiwanese Ambassador in Geneva, to clarify Taipei’s position.

Since the nomination of WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus in 2017, Taiwan has not been invited ?

Exactly. The previous Director General of WHO, Margaret Chan, invited Taiwan as an observer between 2009 and 2016.

Is it because China supported his nomination ?

Dr. Tedros has not issued so far an invitation to Taiwan out of political consideration, not to offend the Chinese government.

Which states have requested the presence of Taiwan at the WHA?

Leading donors of WHO like the United-States, Canada, New Zealand and Japan have announced their support for Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the coming WHA. And so far around Ten Member States who have submitted the proposal to support our participation are our diplomatic allies.

Who has the legal power to decide?

There are two ways to invite observers. The first is through the Director General (DG) who can send an invitation to an observer. The second way is by the Assembly. From the previous practice, we have seen in many occasions the DG issued the invitation without a decision of WHA. In his book, the former legal Council to WHO, Gian Luca Burci, specifically mentioned the DG’s discretionary power to issue an invitation. However, the legal argument should not be the main consideration here. At a time like this, fighting Covid-19, the international organization should include all stakeholders so that the international community can work together to find a solution.

Who is against and why at this precise moment?

The main reasons are political. In the past years, China has been against Taiwan’s participation in international organizations even if we are the 22nd largest economy in the world. Taiwan so far has no access to any of the UN related agencies. Even our journalists cannot report UN meetings.

Taiwan was one of the first states to put in place an effective response against Covid-19?

We had our first case the 21st of January. Until today we have 440 confirmed cases and 7 deaths in almost four months. Already 368 people have been cured. We started taking measures very early with on-board inspection on all the flights from Wuhan on December 31st, and extended gradually the measures to other flights coming from other Chinese cities. If these measures taken by Taiwan CDC [Centres for Disease Control] had been shared with other member states they may have been able to learn from it. Unfortunately, they were never shown on the IHR [International Health Regulations] website. Even the contact person of our CDC is not published on that website, nor any information on Taiwan in their report on Covid-19. WHO plays a very important role particularly in a time like this, and we do hope that they facilitate timely and transparent information sharing. Member states are talking about cooperation in vaccine development and laboratory work, and this is an area [where] we hope to participate and exchange views with other member states.

Taiwan warned about an atypical pneumonia and shared this information with WHO as early as 31st December, is that correct?

Our doctors and CDC officials can comprehend the information on Chinese websites and social media because of our common official language. We noticed there were atypical pneumonia cases and we sent an email to WHO to inform them. It was mentioned in the email that the samples (even though not SARS) were under examination and cases had been isolated for treatment. The isolation showed that it may be something serious.

What was the answer to this email?

We received a short response from WHO that they would relay that to the technical team.

Had there been an earlier answer, and another way of dealing with that information, do you think the pandemic could have been slowed down or limited?

We just want to point out the importance of including Taiwan in the work of WHO. The current situation in Taiwan is a very strong proof that we should be invited to participate in the discussions not only on Covid-19 but also all the technical work.

This shows how information is key in handling a pandemic?

Some members are talking about reviewing the actions taken by WHO. We will support that position at the proper time. At this point, we want to emphasize the importance of collaboration, and share our experience.

What were the consequences of not being part of WHO during another epidemic that was also hard on you, SARS in 2003?

We learned hard lessons from that epidemic. The first two months, we did not get any assistance from WHO. We got our help mostly from the US CDC. That caused us [to lose] many lives (more than 70). From that experience, we developed our SOP [standard operating procedure]. That’s why this time, we handled the situation. We established an inter-agency task force to oversee and coordinate related work. The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) that is led by our health minister, holds a press conference every day since January to make sure the general public gets the most recent updates, and the society has be able to remain calm. Regarding the masks, we could only produce 3 million masks daily before; now we produce 13 million. We have donated more than 17 million masks to the US, European countries, Pacific islands and South East Asia.

Why is it important to be part of WHA and what will you do if you are denied access as an observer?

If we are not able to be invited, it would be an unfortunate scenario. The international community would question if multilateralism is working.

What is your opinion on accusations against China for not having warmed sooner about the real threat of this virus and censored the doctors who did?

It’s an obligation in such a pandemic for governments to provide transparent and timely information. Taiwan shows that a democracy effectively handles such situations, and it is important to provide accurate and transparent information.