The official Twitter account for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations airspace body, spent much of Monday and Tuesday blocking social media users who noted that its exclusion of Taiwan is particularly dangerous in the context of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in China.
The ICAO, like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. itself, refuses to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty as part of its relationship with China. China considers Taiwan a rogue province under its legitimate control despite the fact that Taiwan is fully independent of Beijing and the island has never in history formed part of the People’s Republic. Beijing insists that any state seeking diplomatic relations with China, or any international body seeking its cooperation, ignore Taiwan’s sovereignty and reject any attempts by the Taiwanese government to establish ties.
The head of the ICAO, Secretary-General Fang Liu, was formerly an aviation official for the Chinese Communist Party. The Party has a history of disappearing its alums who go on to head international organizations if they do not strictly obey its commands, even abroad.
Taiwan has documented eight cases of the new coronavirus – which causes respiratory system damage, pneumonia, and death – as of Wednesday morning, according to its government. The WHO considers Taiwan a province of China and thus does not distinguish Taiwanese cases as separate from the nearly 6,000 cases documented in that country. The virus has killed 132 people at press time, all within China. Most cases have been documented in Wuhan, the central Chinese metropolis where the virus is believed to have originated.
Taiwan operates some of the world’s busiest airports and, close to some of the hardest-hit provinces in southern China, is geographically critical to monitoring travelers and containing the virus. Yet the ICAO, which claims to be playing a “supporting role” in U.N. coronavirus response, rejects any attempts by Taipei to join the global conversation on how to contain the outbreak.
The Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported on Tuesday that the growing scandal surrounding the ICAO began on Saturday, when user Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, revealed that the ICAO blocked her on Twitter after she questioned the organization’s exclusion of Taiwan from coronavirus response measures.
Hey everyone, check this out– I've been blocked by the International Civil Aviation Organization (@icao), a @UN specialized agency, for assumedly tweeting about the need for Taiwan's inclusion (not membership) in light of a global health crisis. 1/ pic.twitter.com/yEZur36xvp
— Jessica Drun (@jessicadrun) January 25, 2020
Drun had originally questioned both the ICAO and the WHO, writing, “Want to drive the point home that two orgs, @WHO & @icao, refuse to share knowledge w/ Taiwan authorities. This means civil aviation authorities for one of busiest regional airports do not receive up-to-date info on any potential ICAO-WHO efforts. This is how a virus spreads.”
Following Drun’s revelation that the ICAO had blocked her, several others also objecting to Taiwan’s exclusion reported having the same experience. Others criticized the ICAO for not doing enough to save lives and instead received ill-timed mockery.
— ICAO (@icao) January 27, 2020
As reports of the ICAO blocking users concerned about the coronavirus outbreak spread, American officials issued statements condemning the United Nations organization. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives issued a statement on Twitter on Monday denouncing the ICAO for silencing dissent.
“The United Nation’s @icao plays a valuable role in ensuring aviation security. But silencing voices that oppose ICAO’s exclusion of Taiwan goes against their stated principles of fairness, inclusion, and transparency,” the Twitter post read. Individual members of Congress also expressed outrage at the U.N. organization, which is tasked with representing the interests of all global civilians, silencing legitimate questions on its treatment of Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry thanked those supporting its inclusion in the global response to coronavirus on Twitter. The ministry has also lodged a “solemn protest” before the ICAO, which is headquartered in Canada.
Supporting #Taiwan’s inclusion in @icao is “communicating misinformation?” 🙈🙉🙊 & then the Taiwan issue will just disappear? No! Taiwan will remain an air traffic hub & the only way to ensure safety is inclusion. JW https://t.co/2nLhUXKAZk
— 外交部 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC (Taiwan) 🇹🇼 (@MOFA_Taiwan) January 28, 2020
Speaking to the HKFP, ICAO communications director Anthony Philbin claimed that those individuals blocked on Twitter were “deemed to be purposefully and publicly misrepresenting our organization in order to draw attention to their own campaign objectives.” He added that the ICAO is allegedly fully bound by the fact that the U.N. General Assembly, the organization’s largest body, has rejected the reality of Taiwanese sovereignty.
On Twitter, the ICAO repeatedly referred to support for Taiwan as “spam”:
Due to an unusually large amount of spam, we are unfortunately unable to answer genuine queries at this time. As we are committed to empowering the public, media and civil society through information sharing, we regret the inconvenience.
— ICAO (@icao) January 28, 2020
We understand peer pressure, but we only block people for doing uncool stuff, like sending us spam.
— ICAO (@icao) January 27, 2020
The ICAO’s rejection of Taiwan mirrors that of the World Health Organization, which as openly rejected any information Taiwan has to offer or expertise in handling the coronavirus. Chinese President Tsai Ing-wen demanded the country’s rightful place at the international body last week as China admitted, nearly a month after privately notifying the WHO, that it had identified a new strain of virus.
“Political considerations should not surpass protection for the people,” Tsai said. “I want to again urge the WHO not to exclude Taiwan for political reasons. Taiwan is on the front line of global infectious disease prevention. The WHO should have a space for Taiwan’s participation.”
The WHO rescinded Taiwan’s invitation to its annual World Health Assembly in the aftermath of Tsai’s election. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) discourages cooperation with China that requires disregarding the nation’s sovereignty and actively rejects Beijing’s proposal to install “One Country, Two Systems,” the policy currently in place in Hong Kong, on the island.