In the eyes of Taiwan, which has failed for the ninth consecutive year to gain observer status in the World Health Assembly (WHA), the newly revised International Health Regulations (IHR) may be something to shout about.
The island, through its allies in the World Health Organization (WHO), has long been pushing the principle of "universal application" of the IHR, the WHO's global legal framework for infectious disease control.
On May 23, the 58th annual session of the WHA, the supreme decision-making body of the WHO, adopted a new set of regulations on national and international responses to disease outbreaks.
The new IHR contains four principles, namely "respecting human rights," "respecting the sovereignty of member states," "observing the United Nations Charter and the WHO Constitution," and "universal application."
Taiwan's "ministry of foreign affairs" immediately welcomed the adoption of the IHR, saying the insertion of the words "universal application" into the new IHR was the result of the island's strenuous "diplomatic" efforts.
Some Taiwan's media organizations have even called Article 3 of the IHR "the Taiwan Article." The article states that the regulations "shall be guided by the goal of their universal application for the protection of all people of the world" from international spread of disease.
Some Taiwan officials claim the principle of "universal application" will be the legal basis for the island's attempt to join the WHO, and will thus boost its chances of winning that bid.
But this claim has apparently resulted from a "deliberate misunderstanding" of the new IHR, which stipulates that provisions will only be applied to sovereign member states.
Furthermore, the newly adopted four principles are equally important and interconnected. In other words, the principle of "universal application" should not override the other three principles to undermine the sovereignty of member states of the WHO.
Since 1997, Taiwan has launched an annual campaign to become an observer at the WHA. It has met with failure each time due to strong opposition from Beijing.
Taipei has repeatedly accused Beijing of blocking its WHO bid, describing the blockade as a move to "bully Taiwan internationally," and "suffocate Taiwan on the international stage," and claiming that the WHO has failed to take care of the health of 23 million people on the island.
These accusations, however, fly in the face of the facts. The long-time dispute across the Straits actually boils down to two questions: First, whether Taiwan is qualified to enter the world health body? Second, has the island been excluded from participation in the WHO?
The answer to the first question can easily be found.
Resolution 2758 of the 26th session of the UN General Assembly and Resolution 251 of the 25th WHA have long affirmed explicitly that the government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China at the UN and the WHO.
The WHO constitution and WHA rules stipulate clearly that WHO membership is open only to sovereign states, and only sovereign states and relevant international organizations can attend the WHA as observers at the invitation of the WHO director-general.
As part of China, the island is not qualified to be a full or associate member of the WHO or attend the WHA as an observer.
Judging from the above-mentioned facts, there are no legal grounds for allowing the island to join such an inter-governmental international organization as WHO with 192 member states.
That also tells us why the WHA has rejected Taiwan's nine annual applications for observer status, which were apparently aimed at promoting "two Chinas" or "one China, one Taiwan" in this international organization.
As for the second question of whether Taiwan has chance of participating in WHO activities, the answer is definitely "yes."
The Chinese mainland has never opposed Taiwan's entry into the WHO merely in order to oppose the island. Rather, what Beijing objects to is Taipei's attempt to promote "Taiwan independence" at the WHA rather than the health concerns of Taiwan compatriots.
China has made strenuous efforts with utmost sincerity to find flexible and practical ways to facilitate contact between Taiwan and the WHO.
While encouraging close cross-Straits exchanges in the health sector, Beijing has invited medical and public health professionals from Taiwan to join the Chinese delegation to the WHA.
During the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, Beijing agreed to allow WHO experts to investigate the SARS situation in Taiwan, followed by its approval of Taiwan's participation in the WHO-sponsored global SARS conference in June 2003.
As the latest efforts to facilitate Taiwan's technical exchanges with the WHO, the Chinese Ministry of Health and the world health body signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the sideline of the 58th WHA.
The MOU will greatly facilitate Taiwan health experts' rapid access to more accurate medical and health information and give it technical assistance, said Gao Qiang, head of the Chinese delegation and health minister.
According to the procedure stipulated in the MOU, the WHO secretariat can invite Taiwan medical and public health experts to participate in its technical activities, send staff or experts to Taiwan to study health and epidemic situations or to provide medical and other public health assistance.
In the event of acute public health emergencies in Taiwan, the WHO can send experts to Taiwan for field visits or provide technical assistance, or it can invite Taiwan medical and public health experts to participate in relevant technical activities.
All the facts have shown that there has been no exclusion, and there will be no exclusion, of Taiwan from WHO activities and access to WHO health information.
Since there is neither the legal basis, nor the need, for Taiwan to continue to push for observer status at the WHA, the best option facing the island is to terminate its WHO bid once and for all.
Otherwise, any further attempt by Taiwan to enter the WHO will only expose its real political intention of pursuing independence for the island.
The island's political plans, using the excuse of participating in the WHO, will make a fool of the international community.
(China Daily May 31, 2005)