Cultural Rifts Plague Conference on AIDS

Article excerpt

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. …