In a stirring opening to a global conference on HIV and AIDS, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged all countries Monday to put aside moral judgments and confront the grim reality of a scourge that has already killed 22 million people and set development back a full decade in some nations.
"We cannot deal with AIDS by making moral judgments or refusing to face unpleasant facts--and still less by stigmatizing those who are infected and making out that it is all their fault," Annan said to delegates from 188 nations.
"We can only do it by speaking clearly and openly, both about the ways that people become infected and about what they can do to avoid infection," he said. "And let us remember that every person who is infected--whatever the reason--is a fellow human being, with human rights and human needs."
Annan's admonishments addressed a conflict that is threatening to undermine the summit of nearly 3,000 diplomats, activists and health experts who are trying to craft an action plan to fight AIDS.
On Monday, a bloc that included Islamic and some Roman Catholic countries rejected the draft declaration the summit hoped to adopt Wednesday because it identified homosexuals, intravenous drug users and sex workers as "those most vulnerable" and needing special attention if the spread of the disease is to be curbed. Some leaders consider those groups immoral, or nonexistent in their countries, and not deserving of special treatment.
Iranian Ambassador Hadi Nejad Hosseinian said the conference should not be "an opportunity for the Western world to push the envelope in areas where there is cultural sensitivity, religious and ethnic sensitivity."
But others ask how the world can agree on a solution to the spread of AIDS if its leaders can't even agree on how to talk about the disease's transmission.
In a mini-drama that diverted debate for nearly three hours, the General Assembly argued over whether an American group that drew the objections of Islamic countries should be allowed to participate in an informal round-table discussion today on human rights and AIDS. Backers of the group threatened to withdraw from the sessions if a representative of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission of San Francisco was excluded.
"We hope issues of controversy here will produce new insights," said Norway's minister of international development, Ann Kristin Sydnes, one of the main sponsors of the U.S. group's right to participate. "If we'd like to see agreement on such powerful issues as human rights and using direct language and breaking the silence, we must have these discussions."
At the end of a rancorous debate disguised by diplomatic language, 60 countries voted to reinstate the group, 30 abstained and the Islamic bloc boycotted the process. The round table will go on as scheduled.
Scott Long, the program director for the group, said it declined a proposed compromise to speak about only human rights issues, not gays and lesbians.
"It's very hard to talk about HIV/AIDS without talking about people with HIV/AIDS," he said Monday. "If governments are not willing to talk about it, why are they participating in the special session?"
If there was one thing everyone agreed on Monday, it was the need for more money to accelerate prevention and treatment programs. Annan has called on governments, businesses and private foundations to increase spending to five times the current $2 billion annually.
About 36 million people today are living with AIDS or HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes the disease. About 25 million of them are in Africa, where the disease has orphaned 13 million children.
Several countries announced contributions to Annan's pet project, a new Global Fund for AIDS and Health, pushing the fund to more than $700 million. Norway pledged $110 million over five years, Nigeria promised $10 million, and Uganda $2 million. Canada announced $73 million in new funds for its own bilateral programs but promised a later, unspecified donation to the global fund.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in a closely watched speech, said the United States will add to its initial $200-million donation once Washington determines where its money will be most effective.
Appealing for compassion for AIDS victims, Powell told the assembly that the United States would continue to be the world's leader in research for a cure.
"From this moment on, our response to AIDS must be no less comprehensive, no less relentless and no less swift than the pandemic itself," he said.
The retired four-star general said the disease is more damaging than a war.
"No war on the face of the world is more destructive than the AIDS pandemic," he said. "I was a soldier, and I know of no enemy in war more insidious or vicious than AIDS, an enemy that poses a clear and present danger to the world."
Even soldiers are doing their part. When it became clear that U.N. peacekeepers were spreading the disease while on duty, the United States and Norway sponsored a program to make them purveyors of education. Now all U.N. peacekeepers are issued, as part of their standard equipment, a credit card-sized AIDS fact folder that includes a condom.
In a development Powell termed "a coincidence," the U.S. on Monday dropped a complaint it had filed against Brazil with the World Trade Organization over a law Brazil uses to keep down the costs of AIDS drugs.
Brazil is the only country to distribute free anti-retroviral drugs to people with HIV and has nearly stopped the spread of the disease there. Part of the country's success lies in its decision to manufacture the AIDS treatments at home, circumventing patents, rather than paying high industry prices--a move that had U.S. pharmaceutical companies crying foul.
Brazil will now be able to continue making drugs domestically but not export them. It will also be required to give the U.S. 10 days' notice before it licenses a company's manufacturing rights to another company.