Swelling Bloc Of WHO Member States Proposes Invitation To Taiwan For May 18 World Health Assembly
Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen inspects COVID-19 prevention measures at Taoyuan Airport on April 7.

Some 13 Member States have now submitted a formal proposal to the World Health Assembly (WHA) to extend an invitation to Taiwan to attend the Assembly as an observer – a status that it has not held since 2016, according to WHO documents. 

The move, while initiated by the Central American state of Belize, essentially represents as US-led pushback to China’s attempts to squeeze Taiwan out of the diplomatic space in the global health domain – building on mounting frustration with the size and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic that has stalled global economic activity and thrown much of the world’s population into lockdowns. 

Taiwan also has gained media attention with its claims that WHO had ignored early warnings of human-to-human transmission from Taiwan due to its non-State status and exclusion from formal member state meetings – although WHO has said that is in fact a member state decision.

Raising the ante, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week pointedly stated that Taiwan should be extended a personal invitation from World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to attend the WHA. 

“I want to call upon all nations, including those in Europe, to support Taiwan’s participation as an observer at the World Health Assembly and in other relevant United Nations venues,” Pompeo said in a press release last Wednesday. “I also call upon WHO Director General Dr. Tedros to invite Taiwan to observe this month’s WHA as he has the power to do and as his predecessors have done on multiple occasions,”  Pompeo’s call was later echoed by Canada – albeit in more indirect, and diplomatic language.

On the same day, a proposal for a vote on the issue by member states at the upcoming Assembly was submitted to WHO by the Central American country of Belize. A swelling list of other sponsors have now formally added their names to the call, including the central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Paraguay; the Caribbean islands of Haiti, St. Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis; Eswatini in southern Africa; and the Pacific small island states of The Marshall Islands, Palau, Republic of Nauru, and Tuvalu.  

The move by Western Pacific states, in particular, reflects the growing jitters in the region about China’s ambitions and expanding influence. While not formally signatories to WHO appeals, New Zealand’s foreign minister also told reporters last week that Taiwan should be included as a WHA observer, following the lead of Australia, which had made a  public statement just days earlier. Already in late January, Japan had issued a similar call.

Support by other Latin American, Caribbean and African states comes from vulnerable states that have benefitted from generous Taiwanese technical assistance in the COVID-19 crisis.

WHO Legal Counsel Insists that Director General Does Not Mandate to Invite Taiwan

In a press briefing Monday, WHO legal counsel Steven Solomon confirmed a proposal had been made “to the assembly itself to make a decision on an invitation [to Taiwan].”

“That is procedurally how it is supposed to work under the Constitution. All 194 Member States can consider the issue collectively, in accordance with the rules of procedure,” said Solomon. “Success depends on political will and political engagement, which underscores the point that this is a political issue that is properly in the hands of Member States.” 

The motion asks for all 194 WHA member states to vote directly on granting Taiwan observer status at the annual meeting, which is supposed to be focused on COVID-19 pandemic response. While observer status would not give Taiwan the right to vote on any WHA resolutions, it does give the Taiwanese government the ability to send a representative to speak at the Assembly. 

This is not the first time in recent memory that Taiwan has been allowed to attend the WHA.  It held Observer status at the WHA from 2009 to 2016 as ‘Chinese Taipei’ – attending at the personal invitation of then director general Dr Margaret Chan, herself a former Hong Kong health official. 

However, Chan’s invitation to Taiwan to attend the  World Health Assembly in May, 2017 was suddenly cancelled – just as Chan was finishing her term, to be replaced by Dr Tedros who was elected at that year’s meeting in the first-ever secret ballot by the full Assembly. There has been speculation that the invitations ceased in 2017 and thereafter, as a result of China’s support for the election of Dr Tedros, also the first WHO Director General from an African nation. However, WHO has pushed back saying that it is member state consensus that drives the invitation.  

Regardless of this precedent, under the WHA’s current operating procedures, the WHO Director-General cannot extend an invitation to Taiwan to observe the Assembly without consensus from all Member States, Solomon stressed at the briefing, responding to Pompeo’s call for a personal invitation from Dr Tedros, regardless of prevailing member state sentiments.

To put it in crisply, the Director General only extends invitations when it’s clear that all Member States support doing so,” said Solomon. 

He stressed that in the 2009 to 2016 period Taiwan was only invited to attend the WHA as an Observer after a ‘diplomatically agreeable solution’ had been found that won the support of all Member States.

“However, the situation is not the same [now],” said Solomon. “Instead of clear support, there are divergent issues among Member States, and therefore no mandate for the Director-General to extend an invitation.”

What remains now to be seen is whether the two-day virtual WHA, which is supposed to be devoted to uniting member states around a strategy for global COVID-19 pandemic response will instead become a divided platform over China’s claims to Taiwan.

Svet Lustig Vijay, Tsering Lhamo, and Heidi News Service/Geneva Solutions contributed to this story.

Image Credits: 總統府 / Wang Yu Ching.