- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

While globalization has opened up new vistas for human interaction and development, it also poses new problems and dangers, not the least of which is increased potential for the transmission of deadly diseases. The world’s experience with the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in 2003 reminded the world that emerging diseases can cross national boundaries and spread to any corner of the planet within a matter of hours.

Creating a seamless global epidemic prevention system is therefore critical to the wellbeing of people everywhere. Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) plows immense resources into building a global network for epidemic prevention and control in hopes that mechanisms for monitoring diseases and keeping abreast of epidemiological developments can be perfected to the point where no gap exists.

It is incomprehensible, therefore, that the WHO Secretariat and some WHO members have persisted over the past decade in rejecting the modest requests of Taiwan, a nation of 23 million people, for observer status at annual World Health Assembly meetings and in preventing its meaningful participation in WHO conferences. Such behavior not only defies logic, but flies in the face of the WHO’s founding purpose: “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.”

This situation exists because of China’s obstructionism and the acquiescence of other nations and the WHO secretariat to China’s pressure on them to shun Taiwan. The secretariat has even gone so far as to sign a secret memorandum of understanding with China which reportedly stipulates that any information to be conveyed from the WHO to Taiwan must be relayed via China and that Taiwan cannot participate in WHO technical meetings without China’s assent. Contrary to China’s claim that this arrangement “facilitates” Taiwan’s participation, events have shown that it is being utilized to block our participation.

We hold that politics must not be allowed to impede any nation or people from participating in the WHO’s disease prevention work. It is highly regrettable that the WHO, in deference to a totalitarian regime, violates its own Constitution by carrying out a policy of political discrimination and isolation against democratic Taiwan, thus undermining the very purpose of the WHO’s existence. In the past, the WHO rejected political machinations and welcomed the participation of political entities such as the Palestine Liberation Organization. How, then, can it continue discriminating against Taiwan? This realization is gradually dawning in the international community. The governments of progressive nations have come out publicly in support of our goals, and a number of legislative bodies, such as the European Parliament and U.S. Congress, have passed resolutions backing us. The people of Taiwan themselves are more determined than ever to play an active role in world health affairs. A recent survey indicates that 95 percent of Taiwanese believe our government should strive to become a WHO member under the name “Taiwan.” And more than half of our national legislators have signed a petition calling for such action.

This determination is rooted in the lessons we learned from the devastating 2003 SARS epidemic, China’s “gift” to Taiwan: Disease respects no border, and only through cooperation with the world health body and other countries can we prevent needless loss of life. Given the very real threat of emergence of a strain of avian flu virus that can easily be transmitted from human to human, the government of Taiwan cannot countenance the perpetuation of conditions that portend a replay of the SARS tragedy on a still more horrific scale.

At the same time, we are more than willing to share with the world community our abundant health-related resources and know-how, such as our experience in hepatitis prevention and creating a high-quality universal national health insurance system.

Given the unsatisfactory progress we have made toward achieving even the modest goals of gaining observer status and participating in important WHO activities, and in response to the overwhelming demand of the Taiwanese people, the government of Taiwan is compelled to take a new approach. While continuing to pursue those goals, we will henceforth also actively seek formal WHO membership under the name Taiwan.

We urge the international community to support calls for Taiwan’s unimpeded participation in the WHO in order to protect the basic health rights of its people and peoples throughout the world. We appeal to governments not to let themselves be manipulated into violating the spirit and letter of the WHO Constitution. And we ask all people who care about human health and human dignity to demand that the WHO swiftly fulfill its mandate to create a seamless global disease prevention network by mending the gaping hole in that network which Taiwan represents.

Wen-Tsang Cheng is minister of the Government Information Office in the Republic of China (Taiwan).

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