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.