Protesters Focus on U.N. Gathering

AIDS activists press world body for tougher action during special session on epidemic

AIDS activists are making sure this week’s gathering of United Nations diplomats to set global AIDS goals will not be purely peaceful. On Wednesday morning, one group was arrested while paying an unwanted visit to the office of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. Later in the day, a boisterous crowd of activists from around the world rallied outside the United Nations to demand more attention and money for treating AIDS and preventing transmission of HIV.

Twenty-one protesters, most from the AIDS services group Housing Works, chained themselves together in the lobby of the building holding the U.S. mission to the United Nations. They sought to deliver a letter stating their priorities for the U.N. session, including condom distribution, needle exchange, and treatment expansion.

United Nations ambassadors convened the first day of a three-day special session Wednesday devoted to the disease. At the first U.N. session on AIDS, in 2001, governments set broad but non-binding goals for fighting the disease, and activists now hope to influence the new version of that document. Housing Works officials said there is a chance this year’s goals will lack concrete numbers, making them more feel-good statements instead of measurable targets.

At the rally later in the day, the crowd, which organizers pegged at more than 1,000, marched to the U.N. missions from Uganda, India, and the United States, scene of the earlier arrests. In the process, they blocked traffic on Second Avenue and drew stares from the late-lunch crowd at The Palm.

The group chanted, waved signs decrying President George W. Bush and global inaction on AIDS, and listened to speakers from five continents, led by actress Rosie Perez. Many wore T-shirts, issued by the Campaign to End AIDS, declaring “HIV Positive. Still waiting for prevention, treatment and services.” Some pinned condoms and bags of injection needles to their shirts.

“If you’re HIV-positive and you know it, jump up and down and clap your damn hands!” yelled one man into a bullhorn as the group around him obliged. The rally, sponsored by ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Housing Works, and a handful of other groups, had the endorsement of 89 organizations in 39 countries.

Activists accuse the Ugandan government of creating a condom shortage, and urged India not to approve patents on AIDS drugs that would make them prohibitively expensive there.

Sipho Mthathi, a South African AIDS activist with that country’s Treatment Action Campaign, decried the politics that she said keeps effective AIDS action in check. “We know what works but governments are still debating about that,” she said. “We know mother-to-child-prevention works to save lives and protect children from HIV. We ask the United Nations assembly to declare war on AIDS denialism.”

She said it was critical that “world leaders admit failures” in fighting the disease since the first U.N. session in 2001. In 2005 alone, 4.1 million people became infected and 2.8 million died, according to a new U.N. report. Global AIDS treatment organizations missed a World Health Organization goal to have three million people on treatment by the end of 2005 by more than a million. Key leaders of developed countries have since committed to the more ambitious goal of approaching universal treatment by 2010. Activists say 10 million people, or 80 percent of those in need, would be a more reasonable target.

In 2005, global spending on AIDS was $8.3 billion, according to the report, well below the $20 billion UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot says is needed.

The U.N. report estimates that 38.6 million people are infected worldwide and that more than AIDS has killed more than 25 million. But the report, which shows a decline in HIV in a few countries, along with a recent study published in The Lancet, has prompted some optimism that the disease’s spread may be slowing down. Those gathered in the dappled sunlight of Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, across from the United Nations, did not share that sentiment.

“The United Nations plans on probably emphasizing what they think of as success,” said Heather Wertz, a case manager at the Youth Health Empowerment Project in Philadelphia, who said her daily observation showed her something quite different.

Wertz, who sat at the rally atop a black coffin meant to symbolize deaths from AIDS, took one of at least two chartered buses from Philadelphia to New York to demonstrate. Other participants included a choir from Baltimore and activists from Bolivia, Indonesia, and Eastern Europe, as well as people closer to home. Speakers dished out wide-ranging criticism light on specific demands, though Bush was a frequent target. Waheeda El-Shabazz, from the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP, laid out cuts in the president’s 2006 budget that would affect Americans, particularly minorities. “I want to shake the Bush to the roots today,” she said, a cry the crowd quickly adopted.

She also assailed Bush’s policies that send money to faith-based groups for abstinence-only AIDS prevention.

A Housing Works activist from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn who identified himself as Brother Daquan said he felt the need to protest because sees a newly HIV-positive teenager come in every day. “At least one,” he emphasized.

The protesters’ Web site, ungassaction.org, lays out the coalition’s goals, including universal access to treatment and full funding for the federal Ryan White CARE Act renewal now moving through Congress.

“It is every human being’s right to live a dignified life,” actress Perez told the crowd. “Until that dignity is sincerely offered for every person on the planet, we will not stop.”

Instead of the traditional moment of silence to recognize those who have died of AIDS, Perez asked instead for applause. “Let the world hear you, New York,” she said.

“I just want a cure,” said a choked-up Perez after the crowd erupted. “I just want this to end.”

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