UNITED NATIONS – Delegates at a U.N. AIDS conference headed into the final day of a historic global gathering with an agreement on a plan to fight HIV and AIDS for years to come.
Weeks of wrangling ended late Tuesday when Western nations agreed to drop language specifically naming groups vulnerable to the disease — including gays and prostitutes — because it was offensive to some Muslim nations.
As diplomats wrapped up negotiations in New York, a key U.S. congressional committee in Washington agreed to add more than $1.3 billion into the global campaign to halt the killer disease.
The agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the House International Relations Committee, expected to be approved by the full panel Wednesday, was the first indication of the U.S. financial commitment to the war against AIDS.
More than 22 million people around the world have died from AIDS and another 36.1 million are infected with the HIV virus that causes the disease.
The face of the disease has changed from that of a gay man or intravenous drug user in the United States, to that of millions of Africans who contracted HIV through heterosexual sex. But the stigma that remains has made it hard to agree on language for any agreement at the conference.
Instead of mentioning "men who have sex with men," the alternative language refers to those who are at risk due to "sexual practice." Prostitutes will be referred to as those vulnerable to infection due to "livelihood," and prisoners will be referred to as those vulnerable due to "institutional location."
Egyptian diplomat Amr Rashdy, who led the charge to change the language, said his country can live with the final document.
"For many, there is a reluctance to recognize groups affected by HIV/AIDS including men having sex with men; much of that reluctance is based on religion and on culture," said Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. "A failure to recognize it means the numbers of those infected can only grow."
Western countries also agreed to drop a reference in the document to guidelines drawn up by the U.N. AIDS agency that encourage nations to support same-sex marriage and decriminalize prostitution.
The final document, to be adopted late Wednesday, sets tough targets for fighting AIDS that every country, regardless of cultural and religious traditions, will be expected to follow.
But objections remained within certain quarters of the world body and among conference delegates.
"Such a decision on language guts the whole declaration — not only by excluding specific mention of gays and lesbians but by excluding mention of other vulnerable groups," said Scott Long, a spokesman for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
The agreement came after weeks of tension, which peaked Monday when several Muslim countries tried to revoke the credentials of the San Franscisco-based commission.
The group was allowed to stay after several Western nations fought for two hours with Egypt and other Islamic states to ensure its participation.
Although some Muslim diplomats had said Monday they found the group offensive, others said Tuesday that the bruising treatment inflicted on the group was nothing more than a way to flex muscle ahead of a tense day of negotiations on the AIDS documents.
"If we were really against them, then we wouldn't have approved them in May," Rashdy said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says $7-10 billion is needed annually to halt AIDS and reverse its effects. Rich Western countries and poor AIDS-afflicted African nations announced new contributions to the global AIDS fund that Annan wants. Among them, Britain pledged $200 million and Canada offered $73 million, while Uganda and Zimbabwe vowed to add $2 million and $1 million. Kenya promised a token $7,000.
The United States has already pledged $200 million. A statement from the Republican majority on the committee said the more than $1.3 billion for the fiscal year 2002 would be in addition to the money promised for the fund.