As delegates from more than 150 countries gathered at the United Nations Wednesday to assess progress in the global fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, activists gathered outside to protest that promises made five years ago in a U.N. declaration to cut infection rates and expand AIDS treatment have not been kept.
One of the demonstrators, Eric Sawyer, co-founder of Act Up New York and a leading AIDS activist, has been HIV positive since 1981. He singled out the Bush Administration for special criticism. "The Bush Administration is trying to prevent words like condoms, clean needles, men who have sex with men, prostitutes, drug users, from appearing in the Declaration because they say that promotes immoral behavior," Sawyer said. "They are trying to exclude even mention of the most vulnerable populations around the world. They are also refusing to include any new commitments for new funding through the UN mechanisms."
Sawyer also charged that diplomats have spent too much time on bureaucratic issues and too little time on plans for direct action to stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic. He suggested they should treat AIDS "as if it's a war." "They should be having a global summit where they are deciding which government is going to contribute how many billions of dollars, who is going to obtain the drugs that are needed to get people on treatment and save their lives, who is going to mount the prevention programs globally," Sawyer said. "Instead, they are arguing about semi-colons and the wording of a press release."
Beatrice Were of Action Aid International in Uganda spoke on behalf of women and girls in war-torn areas, which are breeding grounds for AIDS. This is largely due to sexual violence by soldiers. "In any situation of war where women and young girls are raped, you cannot know who is raping you," Were said. "Most likely the person who is raping you -- if you are gang raped -- of six people who are raping you, chances are very high that one or two of them are HIV positive because of the very high prevalence of HIV in Uganda."
Vineeta Gupta, a physician, attorney and human rights activist from India, came to the protest to ask her government for an AIDS policy specifically for children. "There are 70,000 children who need treatment today," she said. "There are two million orphans and vulnerable children who are affected by HIV AIDS. And we don't even have treatment and guidelines for care of the children?"
HIV is usually spread through unprotected sex, conducted without the use of condoms. Waheeda Shabazz, an HIV positive activist from Act Up Philadelphia, says condoms are so important to reducing the infection rate they should be universally available. "We should have condoms on demand. I'm not promoting sex. I'm not promoting sex among teens. I'm not promoting sex in jails. But I have enough sense to recognize that sex is going on! Fifteen million deaths. Twenty five million new infections. You do the math!" she angrily stated. "With proper education it's totally preventable. Shouldn't I be angry?"
Nino Se Santo, 24, works for the Global Youth Coalition in Jakarta, Indonesia, which has been trying to get the government to allow condom dispensers in public restrooms. It's a move he says would help prevent many youth from contracting the AIDS virus. He is frustrated at the lack of response. "Society still looks at HIV AIDS as a moral issue, instead of a health issue," he says. "And people are dying. People are dying! People close to me are dying!"
The United Nations' 2006 High Level Meeting on AIDS is being held in New York through June 2. During that time, protesters say, an estimated 24,000 people will die from the disease worldwide.