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UN Session on AIDS:  Was It a Success? - 2001-07-04

Last month, a special session of the U.N. General Assembly issued a declaration committing itself to the battle against HIV/AIDS. The General Assembly described the pandemic as a global emergency with devastating scale and impact. But was the special session a success?

The U.N. Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS has the support of ICASO, the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations. Richard Burzynski is the organization's executive director. "As a tool, as a framework, as a guide we believe it's good. We believe it's significant. And it's going to takes us further ahead from where we were before," he says. "But it's going to take us. It's going to take community groups. It's going to take people with AIDS. It's going to take all of us to be able to push the agenda with the governments."

Mr. Burzynski says he hopes there will soon be more donations for the global trust fund for AIDS. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has set a goal of $10 billion for the fund. "Well, it's going to be again up to us to make sure that however the fund is going to be set up that it will be attractive that it will be responsive," says Mr. Burzynski. "And that we can then go back to our governments particularly rich countries and say this is a place to put resources in."

Currently, the fund contains about $500 million, including a $200 million donation from the United States and $100 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

The ICASO executive director does say the U.N. declaration fell short by not specifically naming groups vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, including men who have sex with men, drugs users, sex workers and their clients. The debate among delegations over whether to include such terminology was often heated. Instead, they opted for the language that read, "risky and unsafe sexual behavior and injecting drug use."

Following the special session, Secretary-General Annan said the U.N. declaration made it clear that women are in the forefront in the battle against AIDS. "It could only be won if women are fully educated and enjoy their full rights, including a full say in devising society's collective response," says Mr. Annan. "It has been said that girl power is Africa's own vaccine against HIV. And that should be true for the whole world."

Stephanie Urdang of UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, says Mr. Annan was correct in focusing on the role of women. "You know, 22-million people have died," she said. "We need to think about who was caring for those people when they were dying. And I think this was something that we have been very concerned about. And it's something that is beginning to come out now."

UNIFEM's advisor on gender and HIV/AIDS considers the U.N. special session a success. "And I think what this meeting did was really highlight the fact that women are in a vulnerable position because of gender inequality and the power imbalances between men and women," says Ms. Urdang. "And that women don't have the power to say, no, in terms of defining their sexuality and in terms of saying no to unwanted sex and unprotected sex."

However, not all agree the United Nations meeting was a success. Aisha Satterwhite is program director for the Youth Action Network part of the organization, Africa Action. She says the General Assembly could have accomplished much more. She says many groups representing women, young people and civil society had little opportunity to participate. "I would have loved to see the people who are doing the work on the ground actually be able to interact with the people making policy decisions in their own countries," says Ms. Satterwhite.

Ms. Satterwhite says many young people who took part in activities related to the U.N. special session felt disenfranchised. "They're tired of fighting to be heard," she says. "They're tired of scraping around on the margin to get included in discussions. I mean young people have to be included on every level of decision making in this fight or it's not going to work."

The Youth Action Network official says many of the 36-million people believed infected with the AIDS virus are under 21 years of age.