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AIDs: Celebrities, activists join diplomats at UN

Celebrities and activists join diplomats at UN to urge solidarity in fight against AIDS

An international array of musicians, actors and other performers joined senior diplomats, activists and business leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York on Thursday evening under the theme ‘Uniting the World Against AIDS: An Evening of Remembrance and Hope,’ all pledging to continue fighting the pandemic together.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan told participants in the packed General Assembly Hall that leadership comes not only from those who hold positions of power, but also from “all of you.” He credited doctors, nurses, counsellors with an important role, adding that leadership comes also from “fathers, husbands, sons and brothers who support and affirm the rights of women.”

But he drew the strongest applause from the crowd when he declared: “Leadership means finding ways to reach out to all groups – whether young people, sex workers, injecting drug users, or men who have sex with men.”

Former United States Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, who presided over the first-ever Security Council meeting devoted to the issue of AIDS, held in January 2000, appealed to Mr. Annan to continue his leadership on the issue beyond his term, which expires at the end of this year. “I ask you that when you leave your historic tenure as Secretary General of the UN that you do the same thing for us that you have asked so many of us to do for you: that you stay in this fight, because we are going need you.”

Dr. Peter Piot, the Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) stressed the need for the General Assembly session, which concludes today, to adopt a powerful declaration.

“I refuse to accept that the life of a poor migrant, men who have sex with men, an injecting drug user, or a sex worker is worth less than the life of my children,” he said.

Assembly President Jan Eliasson acknowledged the high stakes. “We are gathered here on the eve of what should be a momentous day for both the General Assembly and for the fight against AIDS,” he said, noting that on the final day of the meeting, “high-level delegates from all around the world will tell us what more they will do to assure that we turn the tide of this pandemic, once and for all.”

The African Children’s Choir from Uganda and Kenya spread out through the Assembly Hall during their dance performance. Speaking in unison, two performers ended their presentation by introducing Secretary-General Kofi Annan, saying, “with his big heart he has made the world a better place for children.”

The majority of audience members raised their hands when Actor Richard Gere asked whether they knew someone who has died of AIDS or is infected with HIV. “This is not a time to be fearful of condoms,” he said.

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angelique Kidjo, a singer from Benin, also lent her voice to the cause. “I am not here to tell you what AIDS is doing to my continent – we all know that,” she said. “I just want to celebrate the hope, the strength, of the people who on a daily basis deal with HIV and AIDS.”

UNAIDS Special Representative and actress Naomi Watts spoke of her recent trip to Zambia, where she witnessed the impact of the disease.

“The possibility of hope beckons us all in ways it never has, hope convinces us that leadership will rise from every corner, east to west and north to south,” said another UNAIDS Special Representative, author and activist Mary Fisher of the United States. “The leaders we need to inspire our hope and rally the world against AIDS, they are in this hallowed hall tonight.”

International Haitian recording artist Wyclef Jean, who brought the audience to its feet with his song ‘The United States of Africa’ by urging participants to “lower the cost of drugs.” The evening concluded with Mr. Jean and the rest of the performers and speakers on stage together singing and dancing.

At one point, a group of activists interrupted the performance, shouting: “The declaration must include: treatment, targets, women and girls, universal access” among other demands.

Interviewed by the UN News Service, Jamaican Health Minister Horace Dalley offered a cautiously optimistic assessment. “I am supporting how this society feels about the declaration. But at the same time, I don’t think that it is very watered down,” he said. “We are going to see if we can get more in the declaration, but I must also say, if you ask for 100 things and you get 80, you must understand that we are getting there.”

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