U.N. Special Session Begins With New Donations, ‘Bickering’ Over Declaration Language
The U.N. General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS began yesterday in New York with a new round of donations to the Global AIDS and Health Fund and "[c]ultural skirmishes" over references to "vulnerable groups" in the session's draft Declaration of Commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS, which "was to be the centerpiece" of the conference, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The conference opened with new contributions to the proposed fund, which is estimated to need between $7 billion and $10 billion annually to fight HIV/AIDS in the developing world. Canada announced a $73 million donation, while Norway said it will contribute $110 million and the United Kingdom increased its donation to $200 million. Uganda, expected to be a recipient nation, also donated $2 million from its national budget to the fund. The new donations bring the total to $815 million, and additional donations are expected to be announced at next month's G8 meeting in Italy. Addressing the assembly yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the United States will augment the $200 million in "seed money" it has already pledged to the fund with future contributions (Collins, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26). Powell, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he "know[s] of no enemy in war more insidious or vicious than AIDS, an enemy which poses a clear and present danger to the world," adding that the U.S. government will increase its contribution "as we learn where our support can be most effective." Former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori also said his nation will make a "substantial" donation to the fund, but did not elaborate on how much the government would provide (Zimmerman/Harris, Wall Street Journal, 6/26).
'Rhetoric to Reality'
The influx of money to the fund means that the United Nations, which has a history of taking "largely symbolic actions," may actually "turn rhetoric into reality" by raising enough money to "mount effective prevention, treatment and care programs" in developing nations affected by HIV/AIDS, the Inquirer reports. Julia Cleves, UNAIDS policy chief, called the donations "encourag[ing]" and said that the fund could be operational by Jan. 1, 2002. Details of the fund's operation, including how much will be devoted to treatment versus prevention and how recipient nations will he held "accountable for proper spending," will be ironed out over the coming months, she added (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26). Meanwhile, British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short criticized the assembly, saying, "We use up enormous energy in arguing at great length over texts that provide few, if any, follow-up mechanisms or assurances that governments and U.N. agencies will carry forward the declarations that are agreed [upon]." She added, "What we need now is urgent and much more effective action on a much wider scale" (Wren, New York Times, 6/26).
Objections to the acknowledgement of "high-risk groups," including homosexuals, sex workers and intravenous drug users, in the Declaration of Commitment, the session's "blueprint" for the international fight against HIV/AIDS, "threatened to undermine" the conference, the Washington Times reports. The document, which was supposed to have been completed before the start of yesterday's session, remained in the working stage. Islamic nations and the Vatican oppose language that includes "homosexuals, prostitutes and intravenous drug users as especially vulnerable groups," saying that "singling these groups out for special attention violates religious sensitivities." Australian Ambassador Penny Wensley, who worked on the draft declaration, said, "Frankly, it has been a very difficult negotiation. We knew from the outset that we were having to deal with issues that raise profound sensitivities." In his opening remarks to the assembly, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the conflict. "We cannot deal with AIDS by making moral judgments, or refusing to face unpleasant facts -- and still less by stigmatizing those who are infected. We can only do it by speaking clearly and plainly about the ways that people become infected and about what they can do to avoid infection. Let us remember that every person who is infected -- whatever the reason -- is a fellow human being, with human rights and human needs," he said (Pisik, Washington Times, 6/26). Australian officials said they would agree to "dump all mention" of the groups from the document. Australia's health minister said that the "backdown" was "necessary" to keep the agreement from being tabled. "We would prefer not to do this, but we do not want to risk losing the whole document. I will make clear in my speech that Australia is disappointed at the loss of recognition for these vulnerable groups," he said. Australia, Canada and several European Union member nations have "push[ed]" for the inclusion of the groups, saying that the exclusion will be seen as an "insult to the homosexual community, which has been a driving force" behind the special session (Riley, Sydney Morning Herald, 6/26).
Human Rights Group Allowed to Participate
Islamic groups yesterday also objected to the inclusion of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Group in today's round table discussion on human rights. The group was accredited by the United Nations to participate in the discussion, but the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference tried to use a procedural "no-action motion" to block their participation (Washington Times, 6/26). After more than two hours of debate, a motion to allow the group to take part in the talks was passed with 62 votes for, zero against and 30 abstentions (DeYoung, Washington Post, 6/26).
Attention to Empowerment of Women Criticized
The Islamic nations also objected to the inclusion of a call for the "empowerment of women as a way to combat the human rights abuses that make women in developing countries particularly vulnerable to AIDS," the Inquirer reports (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/26). Nearly half of the people with HIV worldwide are women, with gender inequality, especially in developing countries, playing a role in the high infection rates, NPR's "Morning Edition" reports. Deborah Zuti, a coordinator for HIV/AIDS at the World Bank, said, "Most women in the world, specifically most women in developing countries, are totally dependent on their husbands. Without tackling that problem, we shouldn't have expected the women to respond to our messages such as 'Just say no,' 'Get empowered,' 'Tell your husband.'" Zuti said that not enough money was spent to produce any product, such as microbicides, that would give women more control over protecting themselves. Dr. Akinyali Dara of the United Nations Population Fund added that young men can change their behavior if they are given a good reason. Dara said that "to address the issue of gender equality we have to come from the point of 'What do men gain from gender inequality?'" Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, said that AIDS is actually speeding gender equality. "Re-examination of existing gender norms is more likely to happen now in the face of this epidemic and we have experience of that, even in small, poor communities where norms are very entrenched, and people don't want to change. When you explain to them in simple terms, the links between vulnerability to infection and gender inequity, fathers will stand in line to get information for their young daughters," Gupta said (Wilson, "Morning Edition," NPR, 6/26). The draft declaration calls for greater education of women, improvments in access to reproductive health care, providing condoms and providing HIV-positive pregnant women with drugs to reduce vertical transmission rates. Delegates at the session also called on governments to "promot[e] and enforc[e] laws protecting women from sexual assault" (Corder, Canadian Associated Press, 6/26).
UNAIDS' Piot Receives Mandela Award
UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot yesterday received the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation's Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, which was presented by Annan at a ceremony in New York. Speaking at the presentation, KFF President Drew Altman said, "There has never been a more important time to recognize and support international leadership in the fight against AIDS. The current global mobilization against HIV would not exist without Dr. Piot's unflagging efforts at UNAIDS. His extraordinary accomplishments will be measured in the lives and health of millions of people around the world for years to come" (KFF release, 6/25). Also yesterday, South African AIDS activist Mercy Makhalemele was honored with the Meade Bailey Award for her work lecturing women and young people on safe sex and for her lobbying efforts on behalf of AIDS patients (Mbugua, New York Daily News, 6/26).
Kaisernetwork.org will HealthCast coverage of the special session through Wednesday, June 27, at 9 p.m. ET. To view the Webcast, click here. In addition, MSNBC.com is airing live coverage of the special session. To view their coverage, click here. Please note that links are available to readers of the report's Web version only.