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UN: Special Session Hears Appeals For Openness Toward AIDS Crisis

  • Robert McMahon

A dispute over AIDS awareness has dominated the opening discussions of the United Nations General Assembly special session on the disease. UN officials and Western leaders called for an end to discrimination toward those infected with HIV/AIDS and a more open debate about the way the disease is transmitted. But they met with opposition from predominantly Muslim countries. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reviews the issues raised on the first day of the three-day session.

United Nations, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The aim of the United Nations' first special session devoted to HIV/AIDS is to mobilize resources and international cooperation to combat a disease recognized as a global threat to security. But the opening day of the General Assembly's debate over a plan of action showed the divide between the way primarily Muslim and Western countries approach the subject.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and cabinet-level officials from a number of Western nations emphasized the need to end the isolation of those who suffer from HIV/AIDS. Civil society activists say the fact that the infected include homosexuals, sex workers, and drug abusers has caused them to be either ostracized or ignored in many countries in Eastern Europe and in the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Annan called on the representatives in the General Assembly to address the causes of HIV/AIDS openly and recognize the rights of AIDS sufferers to treatment. Failure to do so in the past 20 years, he says, has contributed to the global spread of the disease.

AIDS has killed almost 22 million people worldwide and, Annan says, in some African countries it has set back development by a decade or more. He says the disease is spreading with "frightening speed" in Eastern Europe and Asia.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged leaders to have the courage to break the silence on HIV/AIDS:

"Opinion leaders from all walks of life must deliver the message that AIDS is real. That our enemy is the HIV virus, not its victims. That those who carry HIV deserve compassion, not ostracism. That they deserve to be treated with dignity, not with disdain. I must, you must, all public officials must use the spotlight we are given, to speak out and make AIDS a top priority."

Pakistan's health minister, Abdul Malik Kasi, reflected the views of many Muslim countries by stressing that each nation must adopt an AIDS prevention strategy best suited to its own circumstances. He called on the international community to achieve a balanced approach in which each country's value system was honored while a united crusade was mounted against the disease:

"Let us continue to show respect to each other's cultures. Faith and values, tolerance, freedom of choice, and a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation must continue to guide our interaction as we prepare ourselves to meet this great challenge of our time."

Pakistan was among the Muslim countries that delayed the session's proceedings for about two and a half hours yesterday. The country expressed a number of procedural complaints that were connected to efforts to bar a representative of a U.S.-based gay-rights group from participating in the special session. The General Assembly eventually voted to allow the group to take part.

The director of the United Nations joint program on HIV/AIDS, Peter Piot, urged representatives of more than 180 countries to overcome the obstacles that have hindered efforts since the disease was discovered 20 years ago.

Piot highlighted new developments, such as pledges of more than $500 million to a global AIDS fund, major cuts in the price of antiretroviral drugs and new partnerships with the private sector. But he also acknowledged the sensitivity of AIDS awareness campaigns:

"These are difficult issues. The behaviors and social circumstances that drive this epidemic are not easy to understand or to talk about. Many are associated with shame and discrimination."

Speakers from the former communist nations in transition emphasized their difficult past decade as an impediment to fighting AIDS. The region has been cited by UN agencies as an area of concern due mainly to the rapid rise in intravenous drug use.

UN officials say Ukraine has one of the worst epidemics in the region, with an estimated 250,000 infected people. Ukraine's health minister, Vitaliy Moskalenko, says the explosion of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant 15 years ago has so burdened the government that it is left without sufficient resources to fight HIV/AIDS:

"The elimination of the accident's aftermath and the closure of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant require significant resources. We therefore call upon the international community to assist Ukraine in the implementation of large-scale activities aimed at addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which by its destructive power could exceed the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster."

Azerbaijan's UN representative, Yashar Aliev, said the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has contributed to upheavals in the country that make it vulnerable to the spread of HIV/AIDS:

"Azerbaijan is experiencing a humanitarian emergency of one million refugees and displaced persons caused by the conflict with neighboring Armenia. All this -- along with a huge emigration of Azerbaijan's population into the countries of the former USSR -- creates conditions for the rapid spread of HIV over the country."

The General Assembly debate continues through Wednesday (27 June). At the same time, thousands of government officials, scientists, health experts, and business representatives will continue meeting in smaller groups to share experiences on fighting the disease and try to pool resources more effectively.

Delegates will seek to resolve differences over a final declaration that is supposed to set targets for reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. There have been disagreements about the wording on human rights, the empowerment of women, obstacles to care and the prevention of AIDS, and on groups particularly vulnerable to the disease.