The World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) top legal officer claimed on Monday that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the agency, has no power to invite Taiwan to this month’s World Health Assembly, despite widespread pressure on the group to do so.
The remarks by Steven Solomon follow a tumultuous few months in which Taiwanese officials have consistently denounced the W.H.O. for disregarding early warnings that could have contained the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Tedros, who leads the organization despite not being a medical doctor, has responded by claiming that Taiwan launched a campaign of racist invective against him, offering no evidence for his claims.
Taiwan is a sovereign, democratic state. It has launched one of the world’s most successful coronavirus responses despite not having access to the global public health infrastructure that the W.H.O. provides. At press time, Taiwan has documented 440 cases of Chinese coronavirus and only 7 deaths, despite its geographic proximity to the origin nation of the virus, China. Taiwanese officials confirmed a fifth straight day of no new cases on Tuesday and the 30th straight day of identifying no domestically transmitted cases.
The W.H.O. does not accept Taiwan as a member because the Communist Party of China insists that the island is a rogue province legitimately under Beijing’s power, despite the fact that it has never been ruled by Beijing in its history. Given mounting evidence that China hid the contagiousness of the Chinese coronavirus and censored medical experts sharing vital safety information, W.H.O. member nations are demanding that Tedros allow Taiwan to participate in the World Health Assembly, its annual meeting, this month. Taiwan has previously attended the meetings, but not yet under current President Tsai Ing-wen, who vocally rejects Chinese pressure to abandon sovereignty.
Solomon, the W.H.O. attorney, responded to that pressure on Monday by claiming that Tedros has no power to invite Taiwan because the agency’s member nations do not support doing so.
“To put it crisply, director-generals only extend invitations when it’s clear that member states support doing so, that director-generals have a mandate, a basis to do so,” Solomon told reporters. “Today, however, the situation is not the same. Instead of clear support, there are divergent views among member states and no basis there for — no mandate for the DG [director-general, Tedros] to extend an invitation.”
The Taiwanese government responded with outrage to Solomon’s remarks, noting that the head of the W.H.O. is the agency’s top authority and thus has the power to invite whoever he wishes to organization events.
“In fact, the W.H.O. Director-General does have the discretionary power to invite observers to the W.H.A. [World Health Assembly],” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told reporters. Ou demanded “neutrality and professionalism” from the W.H.O. on the matter and decried an alleged “secret agreement” between the agency and the Communist Party of China signed in 2005 to exclude Taiwan from the public health group. The agreement allegedly demands that the W.H.O. ask the Communist Party permission for any activity involving Taiwan, as the agency would recognize Taiwan as a province ruled by Beijing.
Zhao Lijian, a Communist Party Foreign Ministry spokesman who has claimed that the Chinese coronavirus originated with the United States Army, acknowledged the existence of the memorandum on Tuesday, but claimed it was not secret.
“First, there is only one China in the world and the Taiwan region is an inalienable part of China’s territory. There is no need for China to ‘set Taiwan down as part of China’ by signing an MOU with any international organization,” Zhao said. “Second, there is no secrecy at all with the MOU signed between the Chinese government and W.H.O. in 2005.”
Zhao did not detail what was in the memorandum if not a command to the W.H.O. to ask permission to deal with Taiwan, only stating that it provided for “unimpeded” W.H.O. contact with Taiwan. Yet the organization has blocked Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly since 2016 and disregarded key coronavirus information sent from Taipei for months.
There is growing consensus among W.H.O. member states, though Solomon did not acknowledge it, around inviting Taiwan to this month’s World Health Assembly, which will be held virtually in the interest of social distancing. The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry confirmed this week that 13 of the nations of the world that recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, many of them in Latin America and the Caribbean, have formally requested Taiwan be invited to the event.
The United States, which does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, is also more vocally calling for Taiwan’s inclusion. On Monday, the Senate approved a bill calling for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to plan a strategy for getting Taiwan back into the W.H.O. at least as an observer nation, rather than a full member. The bill also requests Taiwan’s presence at the World Health Assembly.
The W.H.O. said last week that two member states had requested a formal discussion on inviting Taiwan to the event, but did not name them.