Politics and health clash as Taiwan's bid for observer status falls at WHA

A view of the Taipei skyline in Taiwan. Photo by: Jack French / CC BY-NC

GENEVA — Efforts to tackle Taiwan’s membership of the World Health Assembly collapsed on Monday after member states voted against including it in the list of agenda items for discussion.

From 2009 to 2016, Taiwan enjoyed observer status at the WHA, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. But last year, it was not invited to the annual meetings in Geneva, and efforts to discuss its status didn’t receive enough support to make it onto the agenda.

At the opening of the 71st World Health Assembly on Monday, the same scenario played out.

China has called proposals to discuss Taiwan’s observer status at the meetings “illegal and unreasonable,” arguing that several United Nations resolutions, including at the WHA, recognize Taiwan as part of China’s territory. It says that neither WHO’s constitution nor the assembly’s procedure provide legal basis for “a region of a sovereign state to join the assembly as an observer.”

The Chinese delegation explained that Taiwan’s previous participation in the WHA was made “in light of peaceful development” in its relationship with China — but said the political precondition that enabled this setup is no longer viable under Taiwan’s new government, which the delegation said is being “stubborn for Taiwan’s independence.”

Pakistan seconded China’s position, and said the assembly should not be “wasting time” on “petty politics.”

Several small island states came to Taiwan’s defense, invoking the principles under the Sustainable Development Goals of leaving no one behind. They argued that if the assembly is “truly committed to these principles,” they will find a way to “fully include” Taiwan and its people.

“The body is about human health and global safety, not politics,” said the representative from the Marshall Islands. “Diseases know no boundaries, and global health security will not be achieved until all necessary stakeholders are involved.”

However, even before interventions were through, the General Committee, which votes on the matter, had agreed not to include the issue on the agenda for discussions.

The U.S. delegation at the assembly shared its disappointment over the decision.  

“It is again disappointing that Taiwan was not invited to observe WHA,” Alex Azar, U.S. secretary for health and human services, said before member states on Tuesday. “It is difficult to reconcile our shared concern over cross-border infectious diseases with excluding representatives of the 23 million people of Taiwan from this gathering.”

Devex is on the ground at the 71st World Health Assembly in Geneva. Follow reporters @JennyLeiRavelo and @vchadw for updates, and keep an eye out for more stories to follow.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.