- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

NEW YORK — Cultural differences threatened to undermine the first global U.N. gathering on HIV/AIDS yesterday as Muslim nations resisted acknowledging high-risk groups, including homosexuals and intravenous drug users, in the conference's declaration of action.
The declaration — a blueprint outlining prevention and treatment goals to halt the spread of HIV and AIDS — was to have been completed before the start of yesterday's General Assembly special session.
But delegates from Muslim nations were unable to agree on how to phrase language acknowledging high-risk sex, drug users and even the right of women to refuse unwanted or unprotected sex.
The negotiations on the declaration were taking place in basement meeting rooms as the heads of delegations made speeches in the ornate General Assembly chambers.
Those involved in the negotiations were loath to discuss the issue publicly, but negotiators said the issue was a sensitive one that had stalled the talks.
"Frankly, it has been a very difficult negotiation," said Australian Ambassador Penny Wensley. "We knew from the outset that we were having to deal with issues that raise profound sensitivities."
One section of the declaration refers to homosexuals, prostitutes and intravenous drug users as especially vulnerable groups in getting and spreading the AIDS virus. It calls for special attention, including "peer group" education.
The Islamic nations as well as the Vatican oppose most Western countries, southern Africans and Latin Americans on singling out these groups. Muslim nations say singling these groups out for special attention violates religious sensitivities.
"The group that is still considering their position is the Organization of the Islamic States, because from the beginning, it has been clear that they have profound concerns about language that may be, from their perspective, in conflict with their religious and cultural values," said Miss Wensley.
The increasingly divisive issue has boiled for weeks leading up to the three-day special session, the first time the United Nations has taken on AIDS in such a comprehensive forum.
In his opening remarks, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed the dignity of all people and importance of their care, regardless of how they contract HIV.
"We cannot deal with AIDS by making moral judgments, or refusing to face unpleasant facts — and still less by stigmatizing those who are infected," he said.
"We can only do it by speaking clearly and plainly about the ways that people become infected and about what they can do to avoid infection. Let us remember that every person who is infected — whatever the reason — is a fellow human being, with human rights and human needs."
Mr. Annan's declaration, echoed by several Western nations, was among the strongest language yesterday.
In the 20 years since AIDS was first diagnosed, the disease has claimed some 22 million lives and created 13 million orphans, according to U.N. statistics. Another 36 million are said to be infected with HIV.
Sub-Saharan Africa has by far been the hardest hit by the pandemic, although statistics show it is spreading quickly through Asia and Latin America.
In his first address to the U.N. body, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a retired four-star general, compared the scourge to war.
"No war on the face of the world is more destructive than the AIDS pandemic. I was a soldier. 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," he said.
Mr. Powell also promised that Washington would supplement the $200 million in "seed money" already promised to the Global AIDS Fund, which Mr. Annan hopes will generate at least $7 billion a year to assist developing countries.
The disease has exposed gaping cultural fault lines that loosely pit Islamic and Catholic countries against most Western European nations, sub-Saharan African and Latin American nations.
Delegates yesterday argued through their lunch break over whether to allow a San Francisco-based homosexual advocacy group to participate in a round-table discussion on human rights scheduled for today.
The group, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Group, has been previously accredited by the United Nations to take part in the special session, but was challenged by the 11 Islamic countries.
The 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, led by Egypt, tried to use a procedural vote called a no-action motion — the same one used by China each year in Geneva to defeat a debate on its human rights record — to effectively bar the homosexual group from participating.
After two hours of discussion, a vote — a distillation of the cultural schism — was taken that allowed the group to participate.
About 180 nations are participating in the conference, including two dozen heads of state. Another 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, AIDS activists and others are also attending the conference or peripheral events.

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