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Battling the AIDS Pandemic

July 2000

The AIDS epidemic, still seen as a taboo and surrounded by cold silence in many cultures, must be talked about publicly at the highest levels.


I first became aware of the intersection between international security issues and HIV/AIDS in 1992, when as a private citizen I traveled to Phnom Penh and had the opportunity to speak with U.S. and U.N. officials then working on U.N.-sponsored elections in Cambodia. I was so alarmed by what I was hearing about transmission of the virus to and by peacekeeping troops that I wrote a letter to the senior U.N. official in Cambodia, noting that 40 different nations contributed to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Phnom Penh. While the peacekeeping troops were committed to the admirable task of bringing peace to that war-torn country, those troops also had a high potential for contributing to the global spread of AIDS, either bringing it into Cambodia or taking it out.

Since that time, predictions by epidemiologists on the global spread HIV-AIDS have come devastatingly true. While education and new drug therapies have offered much hope for stemming the disease in the West, in the developing world infection rates are exploding. Nowhere is the disease's impact more apparent than in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the crescent of states from Kenya to South Africa has only 10 percent of the world's population, it accounts for over two-thirds of the world's HIV positive people and nearly 85 percent of all AIDS deaths. The disease kills 10 times more people in sub-Saharan Africa annually -- more than 2.62 million people last year alone -- than all of the continent's armed conflicts combined.

Last December, on a 10-nation trip to Africa, I saw firsthand the ravages of AIDS -- from thousands of orphans in Lusaka, Zambia, who were forced to live in a bus depot, many already infected with HIV, to six pregnant women in Windhoek, Namibia, all of whom were infected with AIDS and who had to meet with our delegation secretly because of the stigmatization associated with the disease. These women told us that if they even admitted they had contracted the disease they would lose their husbands, families, and jobs, and be completely ostracized from society. HIV/AIDS -- untested and untreated -- destroys family and kinship relationships, killing breadwinners, teachers, soldiers, and policemen who are the very hope of the next generation.

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In January of this year, the U.N. Security Council marked the new millennium by taking an historic step in making HIV/AIDS the subject of its first-ever session devoted to a health issue. This event symbolized something that many of us have believed for a long time -- that AIDS is as destabilizing as any war; that in the post-Cold War world, international security is about more than guns and bombs and the balance of power between sovereign states. Vice President Gore, who chaired that Security Council session, put it eloquently when he said AIDS is "a security crisis because it threatens not just individual citizens but the very institutions that define and defend the character of a society."

In the months since that historic Security Council session, there has been growing media attention to the issue of AIDS in Africa, including a Pulitzer Prize to the Village Voice's Mark Schoofs for his feature series, "AIDS: The Agony of Africa." There have been many new initiatives by the United Nations, by the U.S. government, by drug companies, and by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). And, as long as I am ambassador to the United Nations, the U.S. will never again vote for a peacekeeping resolution that does not require specific action by the U.N.'s Department of Peacekeeping Operations to prevent AIDS from spreading by or to peacekeepers.

But we must do more. First and foremost, we urgently need a greater commitment of resources. It's no secret that the level of international resources dedicated to fighting AIDS is far too low by an order of magnitude. According to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, the current level of official international assistance for AIDS prevention in Africa is only $160 million. In last January's Security Council session, Vice President Gore announced that the administration would ask Congress' support for another $100 million to fight the epidemic, bringing the U.S. total this year to $342 million. We will continue to work through diplomatic channels to energize our G-8 colleagues, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and other international organizations, the private sector, and the leaders of every country in the world to improve cooperation and bring more financial and political commitment to this global fight.

Secondly, those nations that are in the throes of the AIDS crisis, as well as those that are on the launch pad to a wider outbreak, must accept their own responsibilities. In too many cultures, HIV/AIDS is still seen as a taboo and is surrounded by cold silence. This epidemic and its causes must be talked about publicly at the highest levels. In addition to financial resources, the battle against AIDS requires political capital and will. For this reason, I welcome the 13th Annual International Conference on AIDS held in Durban, South Africa, this July. This conference provides an excellent opportunity for government and NGO representatives, donor organizations, and medical experts to have open discussions on effective strategies of prevention, on potential treatments, and on international, national, and community mobilization to battle the pandemic that is AIDS.

For it is clear that no government can fight the scourge of AIDS alone. Only through partnership among the community of nations, and among the public and the private sectors can we make progress in preventing a generation of orphans whose futures have been utterly diminished and who have lost all hope. Surely, we owe the world's children nothing less than our best combined efforts to stop the seemingly inevitable spread of this horrific disease.



  
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This article was provided by U.S. Department of State.
 
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