Taiwan denied access to the World Health Assembly: Interview with Taiwan representative Chen Hsin-Hsin

As the World Health Organization (WHO) holds its annual World Health Assembly, Taiwan continues to be refused entry to key discussions about global public health in a post-pandemic world.

Taiwan takes public health seriously: In 1995, it established its National Health Insurance for all and has since developed an efficient medical care system. Today, its average life expectancy is over 81, one of the highest in the world. This particular dedication to public health also translates to its health diplomacy.

Taiwan maintains full diplomatic relations with only 13 countries today but routinely finds other ways to engage with the international community on different levels, including medical training and support, as well as COVID-19 aid, and willingness to participate in all global fora focusing on public health, despite being denied access to the WHO's World Health Assembly (WHA) that meets every year and is occurring this month in Geneva from May 21–30. 

For years, activists have been pushing the UN to grant Taiwan observer status and allow them to participate in international fora — including public health discussions. The UN defines observer status as “a privilege granted by some organizations to non-members to give them an ability to participate in the organization's activities.”

Global Voices interviewed Taiwan Representative in the Netherlands Chen Hsin-Hsin, a seasoned diplomat with much experience navigating European politics, over Zoom in English to understand Taipei's position on the refusal by the WHA to invite the island state to participate in discussions that concern the entire world, including the 23 million people living in Taiwan.

Portrait of Taiwan Representative in the Netherlands, Chen Hsin-Hsin, photo used with permission

Filip Noubel (FN):  It seems there is little clarity on how or if Taiwan could regain observer status WHA. What is your understanding of the situation within those UN structures?

Chen Hsin-Hsin (CHH): The rules are quite clear: the constitution of the WHO does not really allow for observer status, but the highest decision making  body, that is the WHA, has rules of procedures allowing under rule number 3 that the Director General may invite any states to participate. And there is clear evidence of this since Taiwan was indeed invited to be an observer from 2009–2016 at a time when Margaret Chan was WHO Director-General. Taiwan received an invitation and for eight years, our Ministry of Health was allowed to participate in WHO discussions.

Each year since 2017, we have tried very hard to knock on the door but never got an invitation. This despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that the WHO states its mission is “health for all.” So this is really incomprehensible. 

FN:  The Taiwanese Minister of Health and Welfare, Dr. Hsueh Jui-yuan is currently in Geneva, despite not being allowed to participate in the discussions. What is the goal of this visit in such a context?

CHH: It is important to be physically present in Geneva, as it demonstrates how ready and willing Taiwan is to enter the conference, and yet was refused entry. We are waiting outside for the door to open, this is very symbolic. 

Our Minister will also be joining and co-organizing various fora to meet with counterparts on emergency medicine, mental health and other issues. This is a rare occasion to meet counterparts. We also want to be there to thank all our allies and diplomatic partners who have spoken up for Taiwan.  

Our diplomatic allies have always been very vocal about Taiwan’s participation in the WHO and the WHA. We have also seen other allies expressing growing support, such as Canada, the Czech Republic, the US who in the first sessions of this year WHA have all stated publicly and clearly that it is unacceptable that Taiwan remains excluded. Taiwan needs to be included into an international network for public health.

FN:  What are the highlights of Taiwan’s health system within Taiwan? What about the  “Taiwan Can Help” policy we have seen outside of Taiwan?

CHH: When it  comes to universal health care, Taiwan is one of the world’s champions. It is compulsory, well managed and also very affordable. “Taiwan Can Help” is our way to help out other nations, we distributed masks to the Czech Republic, but also to the Netherlands — over 80 countries received our aid during the pandemic. We also have been sending medical missions to our diplomatic allies and training doctors and nurses via our ICDF body. [Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund]

FN:  So what needs to change so Taiwan can be part of WHO and other key discussions? 

CHH: There is one thing we like to remind the rest of the world. When China refers to the UN resolution 2758  [when the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of China  based in Taiwan] saying that Taiwan is not able to participate in any UN agencies. If you read this resolution, the name of Taiwan does not appear in that document, there is no mention of what happens next in terms of participation for Taiwan in regard to its status or name. Beijing’s claim is thus misleading, it is important to go to the origins of the problem and address the lack of provisions for the future to allow for Taiwan to participate in any form.

For more on Taiwan's political status, see Global Voices’ Special Coverage Highlighting Taiwan's international invisibility

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