U.N. AIDS Conference Gets Under Way

June 25, 2001 -- One by one, representatives of some 60 nations stood before the U.N. General Assembly today and offered a common plea in dealing with the AIDS crisis: Help.

The appeals marked the opening of a three-day special session on AIDS, which was complicated by Islamic objections over mentions of homosexuality and prostitution.

"AIDS can no longer do its deadly work in the dark," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his opening remarks. Annan urged leaders to put aside their differences and face the facts of the epidemic.

"We cannot deal with AIDS by making moral judgments or refusing to face unpleasant facts and still less by stigmatizing those who are infected and making out it is all their fault," Annan added.

The unprecedented gathering brings together 3,000 experts, patients, activists and world leaders for a debate expected to range from new treatments and how to pay for them, to getting the treatments to patients in developing nations.

A $10 Billion Campaign

So far, 22 million people around the world have died from AIDS, and millions more are infected with HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS. By 2005, it's believed that 100 million people will be infected.

"The future of our continent is bleak, to say the least," Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said. "The prospect of extinction of the entire population of a continent looms larger and larger."

To help with the fight, Obasanjo and other African leaders called for all of Africa's debt to be canceled so the money can be used for health and social programs. Annan called for a global AIDS fund of up to $10 billion.

The United States already has pledged $200 million to the effort. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who addressed the session, acknowledged the world has not responded well enough when he called the global response "woefully inadequate."

"I was a soldier but I know of no enemy in war more insidious or vicious than AIDS," Powell said. "The world wants us to act. We must act and we must act now."

Moral Objections

But concerns over morality threatened to stop the session.

Islamic states, including Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Libya oppose language citing homosexuals, intravenous drug users, prostitutes and prisoners as groups vulnerable to the disease. They oppose the mention because they say it could offend religious morals.

The groups targeted as offensive by the Islamic states are also those considered to be at high risk for developing the disease. Researchers believe it is important to identify them in getting international attention in the fight against AIDS.

The Islamic states also objected to the participation of the San Francisco-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in a round-table discussion on Tuesday.

At the end of the morning speeches, the Islamic states left the assembly hall in an uproar, delaying the day's scheduled events. They left in an effort to deny a quorum that would exclude the group from Tuesday's meeting. The unsuccessful attempt was thwarted by Assembly President Harri Holkeri of Finland, who refused to rule the walkout did not mean there was no quorum.

Not Just a Health Problem

The theme of the first day of the conference was to stress that AIDS is not just a health problem, but a serious economic crisis and a social threat to large parts of Africa, Eastern Europe and even Asia. World leaders are meeting with scientists, AIDS activists and health professionals from around the world.

The meeting is the first time the General Assembly of the United Nations has convened a special session to discuss the disease. A sense of urgency in the fight against AIDS has been felt recently as more attention has been given to the devastating effect of the disease on parts of Africa.

"Let us remember that every person who is infected — whatever the reason — is a fellow human being, with human rights and human needs," Annan told 180 delegations. "Solidarity is needed between the healthy and the sick, between rich and poor and above all between richer and poorer nations."

ABCNEWS' Erin Hayes and Tim Scheld contributed to this report.