Bush and Mbeki Discuss HIV/AIDS, ‘Defend Positions’ on the Issue
President Bush and South African President Thabo Mbeki "defended their positions on AIDS" yesterday when they met to discuss the epidemic and other issues pertinent to Africa, the AP/Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Mbeki said that he "supported a comprehensive approach to South Africa's problems" -- a strategy that tackles "not just AIDS, but malaria, tuberculosis and various social problems deepened by poverty" (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/27). Mbeki also "repeated his oft-stated position that AIDS is one of a number of related problems and diseases that must be handled with a comprehensive policy," the New York Times reports. He said, "In many instances, these are diseases which are not only caused by poverty, some of them, but also cause poverty." But Mbeki said that criticism of his efforts to fight HIV/AIDS is unfounded, stating, "People must look at what we're doing in South Africa, not their perception of what they think we're doing." When asked about claims that he "has done little in the area of prevention or treatment" for his citizens, Mbeki replied, "I don't think, on the basis of facts, that an accusation like that can be sustained. It cannot." The Times reports that Bush "helped [Mbeki] deflect" criticism, saying, "The AIDS pandemic in Africa is terrible. The president is concerned, as am I." Both Mbeki and Bush spoke in favor of the United Nations' Global AIDS and Health Fund, although they "offered no specifics" as to how much money they would contribute (Sanger, New York Times, 6/27).
Mbeki Absent at U.N. Conference
Mbeki chose not to attend the U.N. General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS in New York, an absence that is "even more pronounced" because he was "in the neighborhood" to meet Bush yesterday and because South Africa has the highest number of HIV-positive citizens in the world. Several AIDS activists and African groups criticized Mbeki for skipping the conference. Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, said, "His absence in New York is more important than his presence in Washington, especially given the small agenda of the bilateral talks (with Bush). Both of them should have been in New York" (Douglas, Newsday, 6/27). The New York Times reports that it is "unclear why the Bush administration was giving Mbeki an easy alternative to appearing at the conference," where "he was bound to have faced extraordinary criticism" (New York Times, 6/27). Many AIDS advocates have criticized Mbeki for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and for refusing to provide nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women to prevent vertical transmission, and a South African AIDS group said yesterday that it is "preparing" to take the South African government to court over the latter issue (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/27). But South African officials said that Mbeki did not attend the U.N. conference because of yesterday's meeting with Bush and "other unspecified items on his agenda." Vicki Maharaj, a spokesperson for the South African Embassy in Washington, said, "[Mbeki] had a long-standing invitation to the White House. Time did not allow him to go to New York. We were represented [at the special session] by the minister of health and the minister of social welfare" (Newsday, 6/27).
Times: Mbeki 'Impressive,' but 'Irresponsible'
Thabo Mbeki "is a complicated man who has accomplished more for his country over the past decade than he is given credit for," but he "has tarnished his presidency by ... irresponsibly refusing to confront his country's catastrophic AIDS epidemic," a New York Times editorial states. The editorial notes that Mbeki has an "impressive record of political and economic achievement" and has helped "defus[e] political violence" in South Africa. "Unfortunately, these achievements are imperiled by the world's worst AIDS epidemic. ... Mbeki has been justly pilloried, both at home and abroad, for his failure to face up squarely to AIDS," the editorial states. His "missteps" include questioning the causal link between HIV and AIDS and expressing "skepticism about the utility of AIDS drugs." The editorial notes that this skepticism has "cost uncounted lives," delayed "the kind of robust national mobilization against AIDS that is long overdue" and "threaten[ed]" South Africa's political stability and economic growth. The editorial concludes that although Mbeki "deserves more than a little credit" for his achievements, he "must summon the will and wisdom on AIDS that he has thus far inexplicably lacked if the new South Africa is to consolidate its early promise" (New York Times, 6/27).