UN special session on AIDS opens to spur massive response to epidemic

UN special session on AIDS opens to spur massive response to epidemic

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Aiming to mobilize a greatly intensified global response to the AIDS epidemic, the United Nations this morning opened a three-day General Assembly special session devoted to tackling what nations have agreed constitutes a global emergency.

Marking the first time that the General Assembly has held a special session on a health issue, this historic gathering on HIV/AIDS is expected to culminate in the adoption of a declaration of commitment setting out a series of strategic targets and timetables to guide future efforts to fight the pandemic, which has already taken the lives of some 22 million people worldwide.

"The decision of the General Assembly, alarmed by the accelerating spread of the epidemic, to convene a special session as a matter of urgency, proves that the world is committed to intensify efforts to contain the epidemic and tackle the crisis," said the body's President, Harri Holkeri of Finland, in his opening statement. Calling the session a "landmark" event, he said, "With our concerted efforts, we will be able to turn the tide and contain the spread of AIDS."

Mr. Holkeri also reported that "despite great efforts, regrettably up until this moment no final agreement" had been reached on the draft declaration. He strongly appealed to negotiators to bring the drafting process to conclusion in the coming days so that the document could be adopted by the end of the session on 27 June.

Kofi Annan addressing special session.

In his address, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has made the struggle against AIDS his personal priority, pointed to growing attention to the pandemic. "AIDS can no longer do its deadly work in the dark," he said. "The world has started to wake up."

Mr. Annan, who has been working to bring together governments, the private sector, and civic groups in the fight against AIDS, said there was growing momentum to defeat the epidemic. "Never, since the nightmare began, has there been such a moment of common purpose," he said.

The Secretary-General cautioned, however, against making moral judgements or refusing to face unpleasant facts. "Let us remember that every person who is infected -- whatever the reason -- is a fellow human being, with human rights and human needs," he said, adding, "in the ruthless world of AIDS, there is no us and them."

At the same time, he stressed the need for magnifying current efforts, noting that spending on AIDS should rise to five times its present level. He added that his proposed Global AIDS and Health Fund - which would be open to donations from governments and private donors - aimed to be operational by the end of this year. "I will continue to work with all the stakeholders to ensure that we meet that goal," he pledged.

The Secretary-General reiterated the importance of reaching that goal in an op-ed article published today in The New York Times. "The world can surely find this amount," he wrote, referring to an estimated annual expenditure of $7 billion to $10 billion needed to achieve tangible results in the whole of the developing world.

"Some of the money will come from within the poorer countries most affected by AIDS, but I believe the public in the richer nations is also ready to contribute significantly," Mr. Annan wrote in the op-ed piece. "It is in these nations' self-interest as well as humanitarian interest to do so, since no country can be unaffected by a global disaster of this magnitude."