Taiwan’s sad quest for U.N. membership

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — As the United Nations General Assembly begins its annual session later this month, it will refuse once again to confront an issue where the denial of reality intersects with a negation of the world body’s core values.

Article 4(2) of the U.N. Charter stipulates that membership in the international organization “is open to all peace-loving states that accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and are able and willing to carry out these obligations.”

Anomalies were present from the start, including India being a founding member even though at the time it was still a British colony. The applications for membership of many countries, for example Japan, were caught in the crossfire of the Cold War and they joined a decade later, in some cases even later. The “peace-loving” qualification was never applied. The “able and willing to carry out obligations” requirement was considered briefly in the context of countries with population well under 1 million seeking membership.

In the end, the desire to have at least one international organization aspiring to universal representation of the full human family trumped all doubts and hesitations. Now the membership is 192.

This still did not solve all problems. In some cases the battle over membership took the form of representation.

An especially egregious example was Cambodia when, rather than accepting the Hun Sen regime, the Western and Southeast Asian countries preferred to recognize and deal with the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea. A grosser misnomer is hard to imagine: It was not a coalition, with the murderous Khmer Rouge being the dominant force; it had none of the essential attributes of government like territory and population; it was profoundly antidemocratic; and it was not even located in Cambodia, being based rather in refugee camps along the border in Thailand.

Another anomaly was Taipei representing China, including the permanent seat on the Security Council. The Communists controlled and ruled China. But the Cold War was raging, and the West controlled the numbers and so called the shots in the U.N. It was not until 1971 that this egregious wrong was finally righted.

But one mega-denial was substituted by another that year as values and reality were equally denied. As China took its rightful place, Taiwan was “disappeared.”

More than an international bureaucracy and a forum for engaging in intergovernmental trench warfare, the U.N. represents an idealized world in which nations work together harmoniously for the common good. Values are central to its identity. That is why corruption, fraud and sexual misconduct by U.N. personnel are so damaging. While the Iraq oil-for-food scandal was mostly a media beat-up, financial and sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers is more pervasive. Because the U.N. won’t admit to the scale, it cannot get rid of the problem.

The most significant issue on which the international community of states is in complete denial is the way in which Taiwan has been “banned” from the U.N., just like undesirables in apartheid South Africa. Taiwan is refused membership, is not granted observer status, and does not figure in the U.N.’s statistical databases.

The refusal to permit any form of Taiwanese participation in the World Health Organization, for example, means that 23 million people are cut off from information on global health policy discussions, exchanges on technology and best practices, and the monitoring and prevention of epidemics. Japan and the United States are the main backers of increased Taiwanese participation in the WHO.

On July 19, Taiwan submitted, yet again, its application for admission to the U.N. It satisfies all the normal criteria of a state: territory, people and effective control by a stable government. Moreover, as an island it has a natural demarcation. But on July 23, the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs returned the application. The decision has little to do with the merits of the application and everything to do with the geopolitics of China as a permanent member of the Security Council. Questioning the right of the secretariat to decide on the issue, Taiwan will try to take its case directly to the General Assembly, with little chance of success.

Where does this leave all the fine talk of democracy, human rights and self-determination in Kosovo, East Timor and elsewhere? Taiwan is better credentialed than most of them. Its population of 23 million is about the same as the combined total of Australia and New Zealand, and bigger than scores of U.N. members. Is the U.N.’s democracy fund a complete sham?

In his campaign for the post of U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki Moon made much of the fact that he is from a country that has actually made the transition from poor to high income and from an authoritarian to a democratic regime. South Korea’s example is much more relevant to most U.N. member states than countries that have failed to make the transition and others that were already developed.

Like South Korea, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and a dynamic economy. It is the world’s only Chinese democracy. Both countries embody U.N. ideals, values and aspirations. In March 2008, the Taiwanese people might get a chance to express their opinion directly on a referendum on U.N. membership. Yet, far from welcoming direct democracy, most outsiders are counseling “restraint” on Taiwan.

So much for “We the people.” As the great Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted, the U.N. is the place where the peoples of the world are often served up to the designs of governments. In the decades to come, we are likely to look back at the Taiwan charade as one of the more shameful examples of the international community lacking the courage of its convictions.

Ramesh Thakur is a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.