U.N. officials find it hard to talk about AIDS

The Associated Press
Saturday June 16, 2001

UNITED NATIONS — Unaccustomed to talking frankly about homosexuality and prostitution, diplomats from over 100 countries have found themselves immersed in roiling negotiations over what to do about the AIDS pandemic. 

Many Muslim countries that view homosexuality as a sin punishable by death do not want “men who have sex with men” listed in a U.N. AIDS document as a vulnerable group in need of protection. 

“Does is it have to be so explicit?” asked Egyptian diplomat Amr Rashdy. “This is shocking for my society.” 

The closed-door meetings – described by seasoned diplomats as intensely angry, frustrating and emotional – will produce an international document for the June 25-27 U.N. summit on HIV/AIDS and set standards that every country, regardless of cultural and religious traditions, will be expected to follow. 

Many say they won’t be able to reach the required consensus if certain language remains in the 19-page draft, obtained by The Associated Press. Others claim a watered-down version won’t be effective in fighting the disease that has killed more than 22 million people and ravaged communities worldwide. 

Egypt’s Rashdy said he is willing to discuss any other language. He has proposed wording that calls homosexuality “irresponsible sexual behavior” that leads to the spread of AIDS. 

Western diplomats and health experts argue that Rashdy and others, including the Vatican, are ignoring the realities of the disease. 

During one heated exchange, Norway did the diplomatically unthinkable when it verbally threatened to rethink foreign aid for Egypt if it continued to oppose the original phrasing. 

“We want this document to be a precise image of the situation on AIDS, how to attack it, how to prevent it and who to focus on. So why strive for precision on a variety of targets and goals but be vague about who those targets and goals should apply to?” asked Chilean deputy ambassador Christian Maquieira. 

The United States wants to substitute a long list of groups targeted for protection with the phrase “vulnerable individuals,” including those who engage in “risky sexual behavior.” The proposed language would eliminate what the United States calls political problems and conflicts with the U.S. Constitution, which recognizes the rights of individuals rather than groups. 

The U.S. suggestion does not name any specific group and is so far unacceptable to European and Latin American allies and most American AIDS advocates. 

“We know that prevention programs work best when they are targeted specifically to the needs of the individual communities. These are the people that we need to reach and if governments cannot utter their names, what chances do we have of stopping the epidemic?,” asked Gregg Gonsalves, of the New York-based Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center, one of dozens of AIDS advocacy groups that will participate at the U.N. Special Session. 

The United States also wants language tweaked dealing with legal entitlements to health care and intellectual property rights. 

Six days of preparatory meetings in May failed to reach consensus on the draft document. Since then, negotiators have been meeting for 10-12 hours, almost daily, to complete a final version acceptable to all 189 U.N. member countries. 

The document also proposes tough targets for governments, including the development of national strategies and financing plans to combat AIDS and a 50 percent reduction in the number of infants infected with HIV by 2010. 

By 2003, countries should develop national programs to increase the availability of drugs to treat HIV by addressing issues such as pricing, and should make progress in implementing comprehensive health care programs by 2005, the draft says. 

For some, the debate is deeply personal. Several diplomats and experts taking part in the talks privately acknowledged they have a relative with HIV or AIDS.  

Twenty years after AIDS was first identified, diplomats have yet to find the vocabulary to deal with the killer disease that some 36 million people were living with at the end of 2000. 

Iranian Ambassador Bagher Asadi complained Friday the negotiations should “not be considered as an opportunity by certain quarters in the Western world to push the envelope on areas where there is cultural sensitivity, ideological sensitivity, ethical sensitivity.” 

Others noted that the discussions have at least forced an insular group of decision-makers to come to terms with the language of AIDS . 

“A year ago, it was hard for countries to say ‘gay,’ or ‘sex,’ in U.N. meetings,” Southwick noted. 

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