UNITED NATIONS – World leaders resisted setting exact financial targets Friday for the fight against AIDS, drawing criticism from activists who said rich nations are too worried about having to pay the bill.
Rights groups and some delegations were also dismayed that a declaration capping the U.N. conference on AIDS failed to mention the people most at risk for the virus, including prostitutes, gay men and intravenous drug users.
Instead, opposition from conservative Islamic and Roman Catholic countries meant they stuck to the language they have used for five years, only referring to "vulnerable groups."
"I wish we could have been a bit more frank in our document about telling the truth," said Britain's development secretary, Hilary Benn. "Abstinence is fine for those who are able to abstain, but ... human beings like to have sex and they should not die because they do have sex."
The meeting was meant to review efforts to fight AIDS and prepare national plans to combat the virus over the next 10 years. It came after a U.N. report said that 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, and 8,000 die every day from the virus.
While the spread of the disease has slowed, delegates faced the reality that their efforts have not kept up with AIDS. More women and girls have the virus than ever, and only a small fraction of those who need AIDS drugs actually get them.
"The epidemic continues to outpace us," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. "Last year, globally, there were more new infections than ever before, and more people died than ever before."
U.N. officials and some rights groups praised the gains that were made, including a push for drug users to be given sterile needles and recognition that the fight against AIDS will require up to $23 billion each year by 2010.
Activists said the final declaration, which is not binding, was a missed opportunity, and 69 groups denounced it outright. They said it lacked the bold proposals included in a plan of action agreed to at a similar conference in 2001.
The resistance to financial targets came mostly from leading donor nations, including the United States, the European Union, Japan and Australia. They feared that if they set goals for funding, they would be expected to bear the biggest burden.
They settled for a promise to set "ambitious national targets" in 2006 so nations can reach universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010. The world spent $8.3 billion to fight AIDS in 2005.
Civil rights groups acknowledge that few of the earlier goals were met, but said the targets provided a yardstick to measure the progress against AIDS.
"It's true, many of the targets that were set in 2001 weren't met but that's also extremely important information to do the post-mortem and examine why that was the case," said Asia Russell of the Philadelphia-based Health Global Access Program.
Still, the meeting was not the disaster some had feared. Early on, some Islamic countries had resisted even the reference to "vulnerable groups," and the United States was opposed to any financial targets at all.
The atmosphere changed after government officials arrived and took over negotiations from U.N. diplomats based in New York.
Some civil rights groups pointed to language on young people — including "comprehensive, evidence-based prevention strategies" and the use of condoms. Conservative countries had resisted comprehensive sex education for children.
The chief of the U.N. AIDS program, Peter Piot, said he was happy with the document, particularly its references to sterile needles and empowering women.
The diplomats who oversaw the negotiations said the meeting was not intended to come up with a concrete plan, but to get nations to come up with their own plans to attain universal access to AIDS treatment by 2010.
The push for education gained support from first lady Laura Bush, who told the General Assembly more people must understand how the deadly virus is transmitted. She called on countries to improve literacy so their citizens can make better choices.
"More people need to know how AIDS is transmitted — and every country has an obligation to educate its citizens," the first lady said. "This is why every country must also improve literacy, especially for women and girls, so they can learn to make wise choices that will keep them healthy and safe."