Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Taiwan gains observer status in WHA

Taiwan has finally been invited to participate in the World Health Organization (WHO) as an observer. On April 29th, Taiwan’s Department of Health (DOH) received an invitation from WHO Director-General Margaret Chan to attend the 62nd World Health Assembly (WHA) from May 18th-27th. In response, DOH chief Yeh Ching-chuan will lead a 15-person delegation to Geneva, Switzerland on May 17th. This will be the first time Taiwan will participate in the WHA since losing its UN membership to China in 1971.

Since 1997, Taiwan has worked hard to rally support for representation at the WHO. After 13 failed attempts, President Ma Ying-jeou attributed the victory to the joint efforts of the public and the political parties at home, and the support of the international community and the goodwill of the “mainland authorities.” In particular, Ma thanked the United States, Japan, the European Union, Southeast Asian nations, Australia and New Zealand for their help in securing participation for Taiwan.

The US State Department spokesman Robert Wood welcomed the news. “We have long supported Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the WHO, including observer status at the WHA. “ In speaking to reporter in Washington, he continued by saying, “We look forward to the participation of Taiwan at the WHA and the benefits Taiwan’s public health expertise will bring to the international community.”

On the opposite Coast, The Seattle Times headlined its May 4th editorial with “Welcome Taiwan into the World Health Assembly” and concluded by stating, “Fighting epidemics cannot be put off. It has to be done with immediacy, and the jurisdictions have to cooperate. That China and Taiwan now do so is a big step forward.” The complete editorial can be found at

As an observer in the WHA, Taiwan now will be able to maintain direct contact with the WHO to exchange information on disease control, prevention, and other health issues for the benefit of the 23 million people on the island. Early last month, Taiwan was included in the WHO’s International Health Regulation (IHR) which tracks and controls infectious diseases around the globe.

In addition to the IHR, Yang Che-ming, the director-general of the Bureau of International Cooperation under the DOH, also mentioned four other information sharing mechanisms. They include the WHO’s Food Safety Network (INFOSAN), Global Outbreak Alert Response Networks (GOARN), the Stop TB Partnership, The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and the International Collaboration and Prevention Combating Counterfeit Drugs (IMPACT).

It is still too early to speculate how quickly and deeply Taiwan will be involved in WHO activities since the degree of each observer’s participation varies. “How Taiwan should take part in the WHA as an observer and to what degree will require further discussion,” Yang said. Taiwan will join six other WHA observers who can speak at the assembly, but cannot vote. They include the Holy See, the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement.

Although Taiwan’s new observer status was met with an overwhelmingly positive response on the island, Taiwan’s opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), feared that more of Taiwan’s sovereignty was traded to gain the invitation.

The DPP is concerned that the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) consulted with China for permission, per the 2005 secret memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the WHO and China, requiring all contact with Taiwan to take place through Beijing first. DPP legislator William Lai called on the government to be more forthcoming about the secret negotiations for Taiwan’s participation.

In reassuring the DPP, Vice Foreign Minister Andrew Hsia has said that “no secret deals” were made between Taiwan and China, and that Taiwan’s observer status came “without conditions.” Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHA this month will mean Taiwanese reporters will again be granted press passes to cover the activities of the WHA. Since 2002, Taiwanese reporters have been prevented from attending sessions of the WHO or WHA.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.