Each year for nearly a decade, rejection of Taiwan's application to participate in the World Health Assembly has been treated as an annual ritual. This year, the international community should review the issue more thoroughly.
The World Health Organization was established with lofty ideals. Like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, it should transcend national borders and political conflicts to offer assistance to all those who are suffering from illness and promote health for all of humankind.
The Republic of China (Taiwan) was a member of WHO. It benefited greatly from the organization's assistance; malaria, to name just one example, was eradicated from Taiwan.
But Taiwan was forced to leave WHO in 1971, when it was replaced by China at the United Nations. In the meantime, Taiwan has transformed itself from a recipient of WHO aid to its position today as a contributor to the international health community. From 1995 to 2004, Taiwan donated $230 million in humanitarian and medical aid to more than 90 countries. Taiwanese nongovernmental organizations have contributed another $87 million in aid and operated health care projects in numerous countries.
In 1997, representatives from Taiwan's medical community visited WHO headquarters in Geneva and, for the first time, requested that the organization abide by its constitution and look after the right to health of Taiwan's people.
For the past decade, however, Taiwan's requests for observer status at the World Health Assembly, WHO's highest decision-making body, which is meeting in Geneva until tomorrow, have been completely ignored.
Since its founding, WHO's member states have increased from about 50 to the present 192. Although this includes the likes of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, while even the Order of Malta and the Palestine Liberation Organization have observer status, democratic Taiwan, the world's 17th-largest economy, is still excluded from this global health village.
A request to join WHO is entirely legitimate and reasonable for a sovereign state such as Taiwan. According to WHO's constitution, health is a fundamental right of every human being regardless of differences in political belief.
More important, recent outbreaks of enterovirus and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which had serious impacts on the lives and health of Taiwan's people, are even more reason for Taiwan to seek WHO's protection by becoming a member. But because of China's objection, most countries have chosen to surrender to political pragmatism and remained deaf to Taiwan's appeal.
Diseases know no borders and are unaffected by political posturing. Its exclusion from WHO creates obstacles to Taiwan's contributions to the global health village and makes Taiwan a missing link in global epidemic prevention systems. It is, therefore, unfair to Taiwan and detrimental to the world's health.
While ever more countries around the world are becoming affected by the avian flu epidemic, Taiwan has remained free of the disease. Nevertheless, as a transportation hub in the western Pacific and with close interactions with affected areas such as China and Southeast Asia, Taiwan is constantly under threat.
Despite this situation, WHO was reluctant to offer appropriate assistance to Taiwan. Earlier this year, the organization, blindly following China's "one-China" rhetoric, even went so far as to assume that Taiwan was an area under China's administration and erroneously announced that the island nation was an affected area.
Before this announcement had been corrected, it dealt a severe blow to the morale of Taiwan's government and private sector in their efforts at epidemic control and prevention.
Taiwan has no intention to seek confrontation with China. Nevertheless, to safeguard its people's right to health, Taiwan needs to break through China's blockade and participate in WHO meetings, activities, early warning network and cooperative programs for epidemic prevention.
WHO must modify its politicization of this issue and seek to protect the rights to the health and dignity of Taiwan's people. Instead of being a zero-sum game between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan's entry into WHO would then become a win-win situation for all countries.
Cheng Wen-tsang is minister of the Government Information Office of the Republic of China (Taiwan).