Taiwan's membership must be decided by member states: WHO

UN health agency issues statement on Taiwan after senior official criticized for refusing to discuss nation's coronavirus response

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WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Facebook photo)

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Facebook photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — After a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official abruptly ended an interview when asked about the Taiwan issue, the United Nations health agency issued a rare statement on Sunday (March 29) in which it said the island nation’s membership should be determined by member states.

“The question of Taiwanese membership in WHO is up to WHO Member States, not WHO staff,” said the statement. It came after Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the WHO director-general and head of the agency’s earlier joint mission to Wuhan, the first epicenter of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), cut off a video call with a journalist who inquired about Taiwan’s potential role in the WHO.

The video produced by Radio Television Hong Kong was later widely circulated as many found the WHO official’s refusal to talk about Taiwan, which has earned accolades for coronavirus preventive measures, outrageous. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) also retweeted the video and commented, “Wow, can’t even utter ‘Taiwan’ in the WHO? You should set politics aside in dealing with a pandemic.”

During the interview with RTHK's Yvonne Tong (唐若韞), Aylward first appears to pretend not to hear Tong’s question about Taiwan’s potential membership in the WHO before abruptly ending the call. After Tong called again to ask for the official’s comment on Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus, Aylward dodged the question by saying that the agency has seen positive responses to the virus in different parts of China.

“WHO is working closely with all health authorities who are facing the current coronavirus pandemic, including Taiwanese health experts,” said the agency in the statement. Acknowledging Taiwan’s low caseload as confirmed cases surged to over 700,000 globally as of Sunday, WHO said it is “taking lessons learned from all areas, including Taiwanese health authorities, to share best practices globally.”

Taiwan has been excluded from the health agency’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, since 2017, as Beijing began using its influence to assert more pressure on international organizations to block Taiwan’s participation. Before 2017, the island nation had been invited to the annual assembly since 2009 as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei.”

Taiwan’s foreign ministry has called out the WHO for kowtowing to China, which claims representation of Taiwan under its “one China” principle. The island nation has also complained about being obstructed when it tried to take part in WHO technical meetings and relevant activities.

Since the coronavirus outbreak escalated into a global crisis, the UN health agency has come under fire for its response, which many view as delayed and inadequate. A petition calling for the resignation of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and advocating Taiwan’s participation in the agency has garnered over 600,000 signatures since it was introduced in early February on Change.org.