HIV/AIDS: An Urgent International Concern, Not Just a Health Problem

AIDS is no longer a health issue. It is a global problem of immediate international concern. Now, an unprecedented General Assembly Special Session and an effective Awareness campaign led by the Secretary General place the United Nations firmly in the vanguard of those confronting one of the world's greatest crises. About 25 million people have died from AIDS, and millions more will follow if effective global action is not immediately taken.

In opening remarks, Kofi Annan highlighted the gravity of the issue and urged world governments and civic groups to take action. This marked the first time a Secretary General personally campaigned for an issue usually left to a specialized group like the World Health Organization. For over a year, Annan has lobbied governments, private industry, and civic groups to deal with it. A special $10 billion fund was designated, and targets were set. One billion dollars have already been raised, even though the special session was not a pledging conference.

In preparing for the Special Session, UN Secretariat staff once more rose to the occasion. While the Secretary General led the awareness campaign, Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette headed an active interdepartmental session to ensure appropriate work. An emblem of solidarity was lit over the glass house on First Avenue for New Yorkers to see, just as delegates were arriving for their credentials.

A plan of action was drawn with the help of UN-sponsored agencies. This was largely supervised by two outstanding ambassadors: Ibra Ka of Senegal and Penelope Wensley of Australia. There were arguments about the final declaration: some advocated mitigating the language to obtain a consensus, while others pointed out that vague language will erode the main purpose of the session.

Some countries still maintain that they harbor no trace of the virus, no homosexual activity, and therefore do not need to produce statistics.

One cautionary note: avoid raising expectations vis a vis the UN itself with regard to the AIDS question. While the political and communications leadership is in full swing, some programs are still searching for their role-and wavering in their full commitment. Some are even playing politics, so there is a risk that the slowest boat may pull down the rest. But overall, the UN has demonstrated a presence in this most pressing issue. It has provided the correct forum and leadership. Now it is up to governments, civic groups and the private sector to do their part.