AS THE 58TH SESSION of the United Nations General Assembly opened this week, the gavel was wielded by its new president, Julian Hunte of Saint Lucia. When Hunte was elected to the post in June, the UN issued a statement hailing the fact that the presidency was being assumed "by a representative of the smallest country ever to hold that office." This, it commented, was proof of the UN's "faith in the equal right of nations large and small, as enunciated in the [UN] Charter."
Nations don't come much smaller or less influential than Saint Lucia. It is a minor Caribbean island known primarily for bananas and tourism. With a population of 158,000, it is less than half the size of Cincinnati. Its $700 million economy ranks in the lowest quintile of GDPs -- No. 193 on one standard list of countries around the world. (Haiiti's, by way of comparison, is $12 billion -- No. 123 on the same list.)
But however insignificant Saint Lucia might be on the world stage, in the General Assembly it is the equal of every other country. Universality is one of the UN's core principles; the Charter makes membership available to "all . . . peace-loving states." Within the General Assembly, all states -- continental superpower and Caribbean flyspeck alike -- have an equal vote.
To be sure, that principle has some severe drawbacks. The worst is that it makes no distinction between tyrannies and democracies -- a repressive dictatorship like Burma is as much a member in good standing as democratic Belgium or Brazil. On the other hand, it reflects the universality of many of the world's scourges. Terrorism, SARS, and drug abuse cross borders and ignore boundaries. As Hunte put it upon being elected, the UN system recognizes that no nation is an island unto itself.
Of all the nations in the world, only one -- Taiwan -- is excluded from the United Nations. It has not even been allowed to participate in General Assembly sessions as a non-voting observer, a courtesy extended to entities ranging from the Holy See to the Order of Malta to the International Committee of the Red Cross. This week, for the 11th year in a row, Taiwan is asking to be admitted to the UN. This week, for the 11th year in a row, it will be turned down.
And why? Is Taiwan guilty of some odious international crime? Is it a dictatorship? Does it make war on its neighbors, or practice apartheid, or harbor terrorists?
No: Taiwan is blackballed from the UN because its neighbor is a bully. The Communist government in Beijing insists that Taiwan is merely a renegade Chinese province, not a country in its own right and therefore not entitled to a seat in the UN. That is a ludicrous stance to take in 2003, after more than half a century of Taiwanese self-rule. It is akin to maintaining that North Korea is merely a rebellious region of the Republic of Korea, or that Slovenia is nothing but a refractory district of Yugoslavia. However reasonable such arguments might once have been, today they would be specious.
But China devotes considerable economic and diplomatic muscle to enforcing its specious position. It throws tantrums and threatens reprisals whenever Taiwan is treated with the respect due an independent nation. Sadly, most of the world's governments find it easier to go along with Beijing's blackball than to defend Taiwan's right to a UN seat of its own.
Once upon a time, Beijing and Taipei each claimed to be the legitimate government of both mainland China and Taiwan, and each claimed it was entitled to the UN's China seat. That dispute was settled in 1971, when the General Assembly voted to recognize Beijing as "the sole legitimate government representing China in the United Nations." That closed the question of who should represent China. But it left open a different question: Who represents the people of Taiwan? For 32 years, the answer has been: nobody.
Beijing's energetic spin to the contrary notwithstanding, Taiwan has never been ruled by the People's Republic of China. From the founding of the PRC to the present, Taiwan has had its own government, maintained its own diplomatic profile in the world, and seen to its own defense. There is no justification for treating it as anything less than what it is -- a nation unto itself.
In recent decades, Taiwan has transformed itself from an authoritarian one-party state into a vibrant parliamentary democracy. Unlike its thuggish neighbor across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan has become a land of liberty and human rights, a trustworthy US ally, and a responsible member of the community of nations. Its $400 billion economy is one of the world's most dynamic -- No. 23 on the same list that ranks Saint Lucia 193rd. Its population of 22.6 million is larger than three-fourths of the UN membership. If minuscule Saint Lucia is entitled to a voice in the General Assembly, surely Taiwan is too.
Fifteen nations signed the petition seeking Taiwan's admission to the UN, but the United States was not among them. This reluctance to stand up for a beleaguered democratic friend does us no honor. The barring of Taiwan is a clear wrong. Americans should be the first to say so.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)