Fighting AIDS in the UN Cafe

Fighting AIDS in the UN Cafe

Read Richard Kim’s report on the Stop Global AIDS March here.
Read the UN Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS here.


New York City; Wednesday, June 27, 2001–Those affected by HIV and AIDS had waited twenty years for a coherent global response to the epidemic. So what was another few days?

The United Nations Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, which was supposed to have been ready in time for Monday’s General Assembly Special Session, wasn’t quite wrapped up in time for the session’s kickoff. At issue for a number of Islamic member countries was their displeasure over certain language contained in a working draft–passages about the empowerment of women, for example, and a section outlining vulnerable groups that included both “men who have sex with men” and “sex workers and their clients.”

But no semantic dispute was going to stop UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan from taking the podium to launch the three-day session. “Never have we felt such a need to combine leadership, partnership, and solidarity,” announced the magisterial Annan. “In this global war against AIDS,” added US Secretary of State Colin Powell an hour later, “Everyone can and must be a leader. Everyone can and must be an ally.”

Powell’s presentation–which included a pledge of $200 million to Annan’s proposed $7-10 billion Global Health Fund–gave way to the dull formalities of the so-called “debate” in plenary, in which each country was afforded three minutes to voice its deep concerns about the pandemic and to brag about its own efforts against it.

With the plenary session a gray rhetorical parade, and with even the high-level “roundtable discussions” among delegates and civil society representatives largely given over to speechifying, the real action could be found amid the mad blur of press conferences and breakout sessions as some 3,000 delegates, NGO representatives and journalists jostled for space in the hallways and conference rooms. There was a sense that the substantive work of the conference–honest-to-God dialogues between NGOs and delegates and people living with HIV/AIDs, say, or earnest conversations about the value of money given for treatment programs versus that of money given for infrastructure development–was happening more often in the cafe than in the assembly hall.

Late Monday, a burst of excitement came from the General Assembly floor when the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), a nonprofit that had been bumped–thanks to an objection from the Egyptian delegation–from the “HIV/AIDS and Human Rights” roundtable, was championed in a resolution from Norway, Canada and the European Union.

The matter came to a vote and the group’s inclusion in the forum was upheld, a motion that IGLHRC Program Director Scott Long tallied as a victory not only for his group, but also for the very soul of the UN. “There are a number of countries that are fed up with the absolute intransigence of states like Egypt,” he told The Nation. “And they just decided to draw a line in the sand.”

IGLHRC’s adventure–in, out, and in again–illustrates the uneasiness felt among many participating NGOs over what kind of partnerships they can expect with the UN as the struggle with HIV/AIDS moves forward. After all, as Long points out, groups like his have been battling AIDS since before Ronald Reagan choked out the word.

Later, in the cafe, I chatted with an Egyptian UN security guard on a smoke break, who was a bit defensive about his home country’s role in the various controversies of the week. “Look,” he said, “Homosexuality is a fact. It’s in my country–it’s on my street. But it is a sensitive issue, because in Islam it goes against God’s choice for your sex.”

“But the world changes,” he concluded. “It moves.”

IGLHRC versus Egypt was not the week’s only bout. After a press conference decrying the lack of affordable AIDS medication in the developing world, a coalition of activist groups marched to the cafeteria shaking oversized pill bottles and chanting, “Pills cost pennies! Greed costs lives!” It was an unprecedented bit of direct action within the UN halls, winning incredulous stares from bystanders and the censure of UN security, who promptly ushered the protestors out the back.

And the elusive Declaration of Commitment? By 4:30 pm on Tuesday, a member of the US delegation confidently pronounced, “We have a deal, and we have a document.” By midday Wednesday, it appeared. Those “men having sex with men” had been exiled from the final draft, as had the sex workers; the relevant phrase now speaks of those engaged in “risky and unsafe sexual behavior.” The Declaration itself sets a series of goals, many vague, some less so: “By 2003, enact…appropriate legislation…to eliminate all forms of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.” “By 2005, reduce the proportion of infants infected with HIV by 20 percent, and by 50 percent by 2010.”

The reviews have been mixed, as in an Oxfam press release gently headlined, “They Did What They Could.” A document prepared by a coalition of civil society groups suggests that the Declaration takes too much of a “passive approach.” Health GAP Coalition member Kris Hermes points out similar flaws, then adds woefully that “at this point it’s all we have.”

“We are alarmed that specific references to vulnerable populations were removed,” reports Kris Torgeson of Doctors Without Borders. “But we like to be optimistic. It’s important to have a tool to start pushing national governments with.”

How effective a tool remains to be seen: The follow-up measures listed in the Declaration are lukewarm, at best. But if nothing else, as one NGO representative sees it, the Special Session “put AIDS in people’s consciousness for five minutes. And that’s worth a lot.”

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