Taiwan and the World Health Assembly: the politics of invitation

WHO Director-General Tedros’ decision not to invite Taiwan to this year’s WHA is an endorsement of China’s politics towards Taiwan, not an endorsement of WHO’s mission to achieve “health for all”.

Will Taiwan be allowed to participate in the upcoming annual meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA) on May 18?

It’s been done before. In 2009-2016, the then WHO Director-General invited Taiwan every year to attend the WHA.

WHO Director-General Tedros obviously has the discretionary power to invite Taiwan to observe the WHA based on the WHA rules as well as the past practices (see Art. 3 of the WHA Rules of Procedure and an article about the subject here). But Tedros refuses to do so. Why?

To defend Tedros’ refusal, WHO’s principal legal advisor Steven Solomon has so far cited two main reasons (see e.g. his May 9 briefing). Yet neither of them stand.

First, he cites the 1971 UN General Assembly resolution 2758 and the 1972 WHA resolution 25.1, which reiterated the General Assembly resolution. These two resolutions decided that the PRC government is the lawful representative of China in the UN and WHA. The resolutions, however, do not support China’s “One China Principle” that Taiwan is part of China (for an in-depth legal analysis, read Frank Chiang’s book here). They also do not prevent Taiwan’s participation (as long as the Taiwan government does not claim to be the representative of China). In fact, neither WHO nor Chinese officials claimed Taiwan’s 2009-2016 participation in WHA to be a violation of these resolutions. Solomon’s legal argument is misguided.

Second, Solomon says that the Director-General invitation to observership requires the support of WHA member states, which is why Tedros will wait for the WHA to make a decision on May 18. This is also contrary to the fact that in 2009-2016 the Director-General did not refer the question to the WHA when inviting Taiwan. There is nothing in the WHO Constitution or the WHA Rules of Procedure that requires the Director-General to wait for WHA’s decision.

Solomon keeps emphasizing that the Director-General’s invitation to observership has to be consistent with the “rules and the policies of the WHA.” The “rules and the policies of the WHA” before and after 2016 have remained the same. They did not prevent the Director-General from issuing an invitation to Taiwan back then, and do not prevent him from doing that now.

The only thing that has changed is China’s politics towards Taiwan after the people in Taiwan in 2016 elected as president Ms. Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, which Beijing disfavors. By refusing to issue an invitation, Tedros is not thinking about the “rules and the policies of the WHA”; he is thinking about China’s changed politics towards Taiwan.

That is, by refusing to invite Taiwan, Tedros is endorsing China’s politics, not WHO’s mission to achieve “health for all”.

1 thought on “Taiwan and the World Health Assembly: the politics of invitation”

  1. Without disagreeing in any way, I would simply note that this has been on the cards since Tsai Ing-Wen was first elected: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/challenges-and-opportunities-for-taiwans-global-health-diplomacy/

    Taiwan has made no secret of its use of global health diplomacy to advance its national standing. In successive outbreaks of communicable diseases, it has put real regulatory effort into being a front-runner (and in some cases over-fulfilling WHO guidelines in order to make the point). China may succeed in thwarting Taiwan’s participation in WHA (and challenging the legitimacy of its prior participation), but what it can’t do is refute the empirical evidence and scholarship from within and outside Taiwan that points to Taiwan’s success as a post-regulatory state, particularly in public health.

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