1 June 2006

Opening General Assembly High-Level Meeting, Secretary-General Says Visionary Leadership, Unprecedented Partnership Vital to Reverse Spread of HIV/AIDS

NEW YORK, 31 May (UN Headquarters) -- Visionary leadership and an unprecedented partnership among Governments, the private sector and civil society were called for to meet the goal of reversing the spread of HIV and AIDS by 2015, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the opening session of the General Assembly's High-Level Meeting on AIDS.

In 25 short years, he said, HIV/AIDS had gone from local obscurity to global emergency. "It took the world far too long to wake up. Denial dogged the response to AIDS. Millions paid with their lives." But in recent years, that had changed. The response had gained genuine momentum. The Assembly's special session on HIV/AIDS five years ago moved the world's response to a different level. With the Declaration of Commitment, Member States adopted a number of specific, time-bound targets for fighting the epidemic.

He said his report to the High-Level Meeting, a comprehensive update on progress achieved since 2001, showed that a significant number of countries had managed to reach key objectives. More than 70 had quadrupled access to HIV testing and counselling services; the global financing target had been met; and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria that he had called for was now fully operational.

Yet the vast majority of countries had fallen distressingly short of meeting the targets in the Declaration, he said, adding, "These shortcomings are deadly." For example, most countries had still not ensured that young people had an accurate understanding of HIV and how it could infect them. And the world had been unconscionably slow in meeting one of the most vital aspects of the struggle: measures to fight the spread of AIDS among women and girls.

The Assembly's High-Level Meeting must chart the way forward, he added. "It must set us firmly on course towards getting us as close as possible to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010... It must move us decisively towards our destination -- the Millennium Development Goal of halting, and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV and AIDS among women, men and children by 2015."

In his opening statement, General Assembly President Jan Eliasson said that, over the coming three days, the world would be watching as never before how Member States were going to take a "long hard look" at the implementation of the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. The year 2006 should go down in history as the moment that the world turned the tide once and for all.

He said HIV/AIDS was a worldwide problem that affected everybody and that demanded a worldwide response. Governments or the United Nations alone could not tackle it. Civil society, business and trade unions, scientists, media, parliamentarians, regional institutions and, above all, people living with HIV, should be at the centre of the response. The presence of 800 civil society organizations at the High-Level Meeting was encouraging.

Worldwide, twice as many young women were living with HIV as young men, he said, and only one in five young women knew how to protect themselves against infection. The world was doing far too little to help. He hoped that addressing the feminization of HIV and AIDS would be one of the Meeting's accomplishments. While the global response had gathered strength on many fronts, it was far from enough. After 25 years, the pandemic was still not under control. Although in some countries infection rates had begun to fall, there were still nearly 6 million people living with HIV who did not have access to treatment. Five years ago, important promises had been made. "This week, we must make the necessary commitments to strengthen and deliver the response we promised."

Dr. Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said that more had been achieved in the past five years than in the previous 20. More of the targets agreed upon in 2001, however, had been missed than achieved. As a result, more people were newly infected or killed by AIDS last year than ever before.

He said a fundamental change in thinking about, and dealing with, the epidemic was necessary. Rich and poor countries alike still approached the epidemic from a "crisis management" perspective of short-term goals and attempted quick-fixes. AIDS could only be defeated with sustained attention and the resolve that Member States applied to preventing global financial meltdowns or wars.

He said that resolve must be political, financial and technological. It must be a commitment to true partnership and must address the fundamental drivers of the epidemic, especially gender inequality and the low status of women, homophobia and AIDS-related stigma and discrimination. Universal access to treatment needed to be delivered right away and on a sustained basis over the coming years.

Also addressing the Assembly this morning was Khensani Mavasa of South Africa, the first person living with HIV to do so. Ms. Mavasa, of the Treatment Action Campaign, said she had been born in a disadvantaged province where millions of people were dying and had suffered rape and other abuse. The fact that women constituted nearly 60 per cent of those infected with HIV must "make us rage against violence and oppression against women". She called on African leaders to protect the rights of all vulnerable groups, particularly women and girls. All Member States must reinforce that violence against women must become every country's priority and take measures to end it.

While her T-cell count remained high, she expressed the hope that when the time came for her to take treatment, it would be available. All HIV-positive people deserved that hope, she said. The epidemic could not succeed in an atmosphere of human rights, where everyone had autonomy over their own bodies. Condoms must be available for all, and priorities given to vulnerable groups, such as children, injection drug users, men who have sex with men, and sex workers. In the past, the epidemic raced on while actions were being debated. The task now was to make the Declaration not "a document of empty promises" but a platform of target-based actions.

The 2006 High-Level Meeting on AIDS, being held at Headquarters from 31 May to 2 June, seeks to identify common challenges to scaling up and sustaining national AIDS responses. Member States will consider recommendations on how to scale up HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, with the aim of coming as close as possible to the goal of universal access to treatment by 2010 for all those who need it.

At the outset of the meeting, tribute was paid to Dr. Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), who died on 22 May. General Assembly President Eliasson said Dr. Lee "was an outstanding international civil servant who demonstrated deepest dedication to the ideals of the United Nations", and conveyed the condolences of the Assembly to the Government of the Republic of Korea, as well as to the bereaved family.

After the Assembly observed a minute of silence, the representative of the Republic of Korea said Dr. Lee had identified issues such as climate change, HIV/AIDS and avian flu as the new challenges of the twenty-first century, replacing issues of war. "We all grieve his premature departure. We must concern ourselves with remembering his legacy and his achievements... Dr. Lee showed us the way. It remains to us to follow."

President Eliasson also extended the Assembly's deepest sympathy to the Government and people of Indonesia for the loss of life and extensive damage resulting from the earthquake of 27 May. He hoped the international community would show its solidarity and respond promptly and generously to any request for assistance.

The representative of Indonesia thanked Member States, international organizations and non-governmental organizations which had generously offered and rendered aid for the victims, saying that it was encouraging to see that the international community had once again showed its solidarity. She informed the Assembly that, as of today, the death toll was 5,800 and that close to 10,000 people had been injured. In addition, 54,000 homes had been damaged, displacing some 200,000 people.

The High-Level Meeting then proceeded with an informal interactive civil society hearing.

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