World leaders address UN special session on AIDS

In the course of three plenary meetings running from morning through late evening, the Assembly was scheduled to hear over 70 speakers, including heads of State and government, health ministers and other high-level officials. Omar Bongo, the President of Gabon, said drugs to treat AIDS must be made available to all, and the proposed Global AIDS and Health Fund must be made operational as soon as possible. “Small pox has disappeared, polio is vanishing; AIDS must also go,” he said. If all acted in unity to combat the scourge, he said, “for once in history the word solidarity will have taken on its full meaning.” Offering the perspective of one of the countries most devastated by the disease, the President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, stressed that funds were needed for voluntary counselling and testing, assistance to AIDS support groups, scientific research for AIDS drugs and vaccines, improved access to drugs, and ensuring “that the fight against HIV/AIDS does not come at the cost of sustainable development and improved living standards for developing nations.” Welcoming the proposed Fund, the President emphasized that its resources should be disbursed to countries worst-hit by the pandemic. Denzil L. Douglas, the Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, said it was regrettable that “institutions and private foundations that pledged to assist the countries in Africa did not appear to have recognized the seriousness of the situation in the Caribbean.” He pointed out that there were 360,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the region. “In the face of this phenomenon, Caribbean countries have been both steadfast and proactive,” he said. However, like the countries in Africa, Caribbean States had little access to antiretroviral medicines to fight AIDS. The disease, he said, “should force us to accept that in the struggle to preserve the fabric of our humanity, we must work together to solve this problem.” Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said that since the first appearance of AIDS in Senegal in 1986, the Government had been making serious efforts to fight the disease. As a result, the AIDS prevalence rate was only 2 per cent. At the same time, he pointed out that the exhorbitant cost of medicines to treat AIDS was “simply immoral and unacceptable.” Calling on the special session to take decisive action, he said, “The time to act is now. Tomorrow it will be too late.”Ghana’s President, John Agyekum Kufour, recalled that earlier this year at a summit meeting in Abuja, African governments had pledged to allocate at least 15 per cent of their annual budgets to improvements in the health sector to combat the pandemic. “Significant as this initiative is, it must be admitted that it will be inadequate without sustained and concerted international assistance directed at both prevention of the disease and mitigation of its impact,” he said. Ghana supported the proposed Global AIDS and Health Fund, which he said should be administered by the UN “with all the urgency and dispatch the crisis commands.” Pascoal Manuel Mocumbi, the Prime Minister of Mozambique, underscored the gender dimensions of the pandemic. “HIV is transmitted through the most intimate and private human relationships, through sexual violence and commercial sex; it proliferates mostly because of women’s poverty and inequality,” he said, calling for special efforts to help those most vulnerable to the disease. On the proposed Global Fund, he emphasized that “no commitment we declare today will achieve the desired results if adequate resources are not provided consistently and sustained over time.” Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo called attention to the devastating impact of AIDS in Africa. “The future of our continent is bleak, to say the least, and the prospect of extinction of the entire population of a continent looms larger and larger,” he said. Africans were looking to the special session with hope, he added, urging participants to help people living with AIDS “to overcome the stigma of society, [so] they can join the crusade against further spread of the killer disease.” The President of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, pointed out that although HIV strikes every region, culture and social group “it cannot be denied that it is most prevalent among those populations socially and economically less favoured.” He said his Government was working to raise awareness among the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa about the need to increase their efforts to combat AIDS. Portugal itself, “in the European context, has a relevant AIDS problem,” he added. Noting that the contribution of religious leaders should be strengthened, he called for “a commitment that does not have to call into question the beliefs and moral values of each.” Daniel T. arap Moi, President of Kenya, underscored the devastation wrought by AIDS on Africa. “This is a time when the production of coffins is a growing industry because of this dreadful pestilence,” he said. On the issue of patent protection for new anti-AIDS medicines, he said it would pose a choice between the human lives and the right of commercial interest. “Human life must surely come before anything else,” he said.” There will be no question of corporations or individuals making handsome profits at the expense of my people, the people of Africa or at the expense of the sick.” Rwandan President Paul Kagame, said his country was among the worst-hit by HIV/AIDS, with some 400,000 people – out of a total population of 8 million – estimated to be infected. The 1994 genocide, in which untold numbers of women and young girls were systematically raped, was partly to blame for the high prevalence rate. Despite its problems, Rwanda was working to respond to the epidemic, including by purchasing anti-retroviral drugs, and providing them to the public at subsidized rates. He said international efforts should focus on adopting a global strategy that is realistic, practical and effective, particularly in regard to resource mobilization. The Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Hubert A. Ingraham, expressed strong support for the establishment of the Global Fund, while voicing concern that small developing countries which did not have UN agencies located in their territories might have trouble accessing the resources. “I wish also to sound a cautionary note that we not place all our eggs in one basket,” he added. “While we recognize that the Fund must assist in drug acquisition, it is critically important that the urgency of the need for affordable anti-retroviral drugs required for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, and effective drugs for TB and malaria, not result in a disproportionate skew of the assets of the Fund to the supply of drugs.” Lesotho’s Prime Minister, Pakalitha B. Mosisili, said HIV/AIDS had been declared a national disaster in his country. He described the Government’s efforts to fight back, which included providing drugs for the treatment of opportunistic infections, adding that Lesotho would “soon reach a decision on the availability and accessibility of anti-retroviral therapy.” At the same time, he stressed the country’s need for support to strengthen its infrastructure and increase access to drugs. Alpha Oumar Konare, the President of Mali, said together, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis were having a devastating impact on Africa. The continent’s leaders had confirmed their commitment to combat the scourge. For its part, Mali had launched a broad campaign to fight the disease. Both the Government and civil society were working together to address the problem at the local level. Stressing that no State must be left alone to confront the disease, he called for an international coalition against it.Also today, the Assembly took a series of procedural votes before adopting, by 62 in favour to none against with 30 abstentions, an amendment adding the name of Karyn Kaplan of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to the list of civil society actors who will participate in tomorrow’s roundtable on “HIV/AIDS and human rights.”The other three roundtables scheduled for the current session will focus on “HIV/AIDS prevention and care,” “Socio-economic impact of HIV/AIDS” and “International funding and cooperation.” read more