Taiwan's annual efforts to regain a place in the United Nations have consistently run into the roadblock of political reality. As long as the PRC, a permanent member of the Security Council, insists on the principle of 'One China,' Taiwan's aspirations will continue to be stymied.
The one major breakthrough in recent years in Taiwan's drive to widen its participation in the international community was last year's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even that took 12 years to accomplish, but several special circumstances made it feasible. Besides the fact that China itself was then not yet a member, a key point was that the WTO, as an essentially non-political organization, does not require statehood as a condition for accession. Taiwan's application was filed under the name of the Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu.
There is another prominent international agency where political considerations should be set aside to give Taiwan a presence -- the World Health Organization (WHO), or more accurately the World Health Assembly (WHA) that meets annually under its auspices. The case for Taiwan's inclusion is summed up best in the WHO's own constitution, which states that 'the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, or economic or social condition.' The dangers posed by Taiwan's exclusion were already amply demonstrated in 1998 when some eighty children died in a virulent enterovirus epidemic on the island, but no formal channels were available for medical professionals here to obtain information or assistance from the world health community.
Now the even more frightening specter of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) underscores the need for Taiwan to be allowed into the worldwide network for sharing health-related data. Ironically, despite the handicaps it is operating under, Taiwan has come in for praise for the effective way it has controlled the disease so far, at the same as China has been widely criticized for withholding information that could have curbed its spread.
Unlike the WTO, WHO is a UN-affiliated organization, which increases the political sensitivities. Yet Taiwan has not been asking for full-scale membership -- only for observer status in the WHA, which would be sufficient to tap into global medical information resources. As with WTO membership, such observer status does not entail statehood as a precondition, and whether other countries recognize the Republic of China's sovereignty should not be a factor in their treatment of the issue. Among the current observers in the WHA are Palestine, the Knights of Malta, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Disease does not respect boundaries, and the need to protect people's lives and well-being should supersede any narrow political concerns. For the sake of all those who live in Taiwan or who visit it for tourism or business -- and considering how frequently Taiwan residents travel throughout the region and the world -- Taiwan's request for observer status in the WHA deserves the support of all fair-minded people in the international community.