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Ambitious Plans, But Little Practical Action At UN AIDS Summit

by Thalif Deen

Women Now Lead Men In New AIDS Cases Worldwide
(IPS) -- The United Nations wrapped up a major conference on AIDS June 27 with a slew of declarations and new commitments to fight AIDS, which has killed more than 22 million people over the past 20 years.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was nominated the same day by the Security Council for a second term in office, said the three-day UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV-AIDS proved historic for two reasons.

First, the level of attendance showed that the world is at long last waking up to the gravity of the HIV-AIDS crisis. Second, the 16-page Declaration of Commitment on HIV-AIDS, adopted by member states "provides us with a clear strategy for tackling it."

Mohga Kamal Smith, health advisor to the London-based non-governmental organization (NGO) OXFAM, said: "The United Nations did what it could. Now it's up to the leaders of the G-8 rich nations to underwrite this effort at their meeting next month in Genoa, Italy."

Smith referred to the Group of Eight -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States -- which is expected to boost the Annan's global AIDS fund with fresh contributions. The fund, whose target is $7 billion to $10 billion per year, has so far garnered only about $1 billion.

Smith also said that the critical issue of drastic reductions in the prices of medicines and use of generics has yet to be confronted. Both issues were marginalized in the adopted declaration.

Phillipe Leveque, spokesman for CARE, a U.S.-based NGO, said the declaration represents "a global recognition of a global crisis" but added that signatories now face the translating their words into action.

"After 20 years and 22 million deaths, the international community has produced a document which can serve as the blueprint for coordinated, accountable and meaningful actions to stop and reverse the spread of HIV-AIDS," Leveque said.

"It may not be perfect," he said of the declaration, "but it represents a positive development in the fight against HIV-AIDS."

Annan brushed off suggestions that the declaration was merely rhetorical, saying such criticism follows nearly every large UN conference.

"It is sometimes difficult to quantify achievements," he said, "but we have focused awareness on this issue in a manner that the world has not seen before."

Participants mostly from Africa
Despite Annan's assertions that it was a well-attended meeting, the only heads of state and government at the special session came mostly from Africa, the continent most threatened by the AIDS pandemic.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, the only European head of state at the talks, was asked whether this reflected an attitude of neglect among that region's nations.

Ahern sounded apologetic. It would be nice to have had greater European representation, he said, but he would report to other European nations through the European Council. He acknowledged that there was widespread participation by European NGOs.

The fact that the special session focused heavily on Africa came in for criticism from Malaysia.

Dato' Seri Suleiman Mohamad, Malaysia's deputy minister of health, told delegates today that although he was in agreement with much of the declaration, Malaysia was disappointed at "the very low profile given to Asia and the Pacific, where 60 percent of the world's population lives."

While recognizing the magnitude of the African problem, he said, the impending epidemic in Asia and the Pacific will far surpass anything previously seen, "if nothing is done today."

"It is our earnest hope that the proposed global AIDS fund will be appropriately apportioned to ensure that this future disaster is averted," he added.

The devastating disease, he pointed out, had not spared Malaysia where more than 40,000 cases of HIV-AIDS have been reported so far, with almost 4,000 deaths.

Meanwhile, 62 young people representing 26 countries presented a Youth Position Paper, calling on world leaders to address the most critical youth-related issues left out of the declaration.

"The declaration sets the agenda for the global response to HIV-AIDS but fails to highlight the need to involve youth in the decision-making processes at all levels, including governments, the United Nations, international agencies and NGOs," the youth caucus said.

Ambassador Penny Wensley of Australia, one of the co-facilitators of negotiations on the draft declaration, termed the declaration "a quantum leap," adding: "Frankly, it had been a very difficult negotiation. The issues raised profound sensitivities."

Citing religious sensibilities, several Muslim nations objected to references to homosexuals and sex workers while others raised objections to references in relation to the human rights aspects of HIV-AIDS.

Seth Berkley, president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, said: "This declaration represents an important step in bringing world leaders together to confront the AIDS epidemic but lacks a firm commitment to providing future AIDS vaccines to all who need them without delay."

The declaration, which is not legally binding, lays out a number of targets, including:

  • developing national strategies and financing plans to combat HIV- AIDS by 2003;

  • making available, in all countries and by 2005, information, education and other measures to fight the disease;

  • reducing the number of infants infected with HIV by 20 percent by 2005 and 50 percent by 2010, by providing treatment to HIV- infected expectant mothers; and

  • developing national programs, by 2003, to increase the availability of drugs to treat HIV-AIDS by addressing issues such as pricing. Comprehensive health programs would be in place by 2005.

The document makes only broad references to issues championed by the NGO community, however. It simply states, for example, that human rights and fundamental freedoms are "essential to reduce vulnerability to HIV-AIDS."

It also recognizes the need for greater access to affordable drugs but prescribes no specific targets or deadlines.

By 2005, the declaration insists, there should be national strategies to empower women, promote and protect their full enjoyment of human rights, and reduce their vulnerability to HIV-AIDS by eliminating all forms of discrimination against them.

Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), said: "Where the relationship between gender and HIV-AIDS was once ignored or denied, governments have now fashioned a declaration that recognizes the deadly connection."

She also said that civil society organizations and UN agencies now universally concur that gender inequality, poverty and violence team up to drive the HIV-AIDS pandemic.

"The crisis continues," she added, "The danger still looms. We still have an opportunity to design our international cooperation and allocate our funding with a gender perspective."

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Albion Monitor July 1, 2001 (

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