In early June the United Nations General Assembly sponsored a high level meeting to mark 30 years since AIDS was first identified. Most national delegates toed the UN line of spending ever larger amounts of money. To prevent the disease the UN bureaucracy favours comprehensive sex education from the earliest ages until adulthood and “universal access to prevention, treatment, care, and support”. First and foremost among these are male and female condoms.
Much attention was devoted to eliminating the “stigma” attached to bearers of the disease. Activists put up posters inside UN buildings and offices and aggressively handed out flyers to employees and visitors.
Stigma is at times a euphemism used to point a finger at those who hold views contrary to the UN “rights-based approach” of overlooking engagement in “risky behavior.” Implicit is a hedonistic creed that nothing must stand in the way of the right to personal pleasure. Thus homosexuals are never faulted for engaging in unnatural and immoral behavior, and those who point this out are accused of stigmatizing the victims.
Instead pharmaceutical companies have been urged to step up condom production and to come up with a vaccine. Rich countries are urged to pour more and more money into research and development to make a cure happen forthwith.
UN high level conferences always end with a heavily negotiated “declaration”. While the HIV/AIDS declaration contained two references to “encouraging responsible sexual behavior, including abstinence, fidelity and correct and consistent use of condoms,” attention focused more on the alliterative concluding element in this list.
Traditional family NGOs encouraged inclusion of family-supportive language. However, while the declaration’s reference reaffirmed “the central role of the family,” there followed a qualifier that “in different cultural, social and political systems various forms of the family exist.”
The conference was yet another occasion that required some participants to object to the language that marks virtually all UN declarations dealing with social matters.
Very few delegations had the courage to question the prevailing orthodoxy. But the Holy See, which has Permanent Observer status, expressed its strong reservations to the controversial language included in the final declaration. In his statement to the General Assembly, Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, hit the nail on the head:
“My delegation remains committed to achieving the goal of halting and reversing the spread of HIV by promoting the only universally effective, safe and affordable means of halting the spread of the disease: abstinence before marriage and mutual fidelity within marriage, avoiding risk taking and irresponsible behaviors and promoting universal access to drugs which prevent the spread of HIV from mother-to-child.
"In fact, there is a growing international recognition that the abstinence and fidelity based programs in parts of Africa have been successful in reducing HIV infection, where transmission has largely occurred within the general population. However, despite this acknowledgement, some continue to deny these results and instead are largely guided by ideology and the financial self interest which has grown as a result of the HIV disease.”
In the “fourth balcony” of the General Assembly Hall, where representatives of non-governmental organizations had gathered to follow the proceedings, there erupted loud sounds of disapproval at this blasphemy. However, Archbishop Chullikatt pressed on. (The Holy See's “Statement of Interpretation” reminded its global audience that Catholic healthcare institutions all over the world take care of one-fourth of sufferers of HIV/AIDS. The Catholic Church has expert knowledge about the pandemic.)
“States must acknowledge that the family, based on marriage being the equal partnership between one man and one woman and the natural and fundamental group unit of society, is indispensable in the fight against HIV and AIDS, for the family is where children learn moral values to help them live in a responsible manner and where the greater part of care and support is provided…
“The Holy See rejects the characterization of persons who engage in prostitution as ‘sex workers’ as this can give the false impression that prostitution could somehow be a legitimate form of work. Prostitution cannot be separated from the issue of the status and dignity of persons; governments and society must not accept such a dehumanization and objectification of persons.”
He concluded with an attempt to refocus the UN debate on a firmer basis:
“What is needed is a value-based approach to counter the disease of HIV and AIDS, an approach which provides the necessary care and moral support for those infected and which promotes living in conformity with the norms of the natural moral order, an approach which respects fully the inherent dignity of the human person.”
The UN’s final declaration called for a “comprehensive strategy” that aimed to cut by half the sexual transmission of HIV by 2015 while seeking related funding of between US$22 billion and $24 billion per year by that time. Upon reflection, it would appear that proponents of abstinence could not only reduce but eliminate HIV if abstinence were endorsed convincingly – and with a lot fewer dollars in the bargain.
At a press conference following the conclusion of the meetings, Paul De Lay, the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) “hailed” the final declaration but had to field an uncomfortable question
“… about controversial sticking points during the negotiations, including concerted efforts by Egypt, Uganda and the Holy See to remove specific language on reproductive health, adolescent sex and sexual education, Mr De Lay said he had been working in the AIDS field since the early 1980s and it was filled with such controversies that really touched on people’s daily lives and values. “It touches on religion, it touches on cultural values — it is controversial; it will always be controversial….”
This is the third UN conference to deal with HIV/AIDS matters. Yes, people die daily from AIDS, many through no fault of their own. An estimated 30 million have perished since it was first noticed in San Francisco and 7,000 are infected every day. But many more people die of cancer and heart disease. No UN conference – high level or low level -- is in sight for those illnesses.
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.