By Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis, at the High Level Meeting on AIDS, UN Headquarters

It was not so difficult to wake up early in New York City since the streets there live up to their reputation of “never sleeping” – so I found myself out of my hotel and waiting outside the chain-locked gates of UN headquarters before 7am on 08 June 2011. I wanted to get a “head start” on the cue to register for the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS. Thus I was among the first people processed that day and, with my badge securely fastened around my neck, I proceeded to the section for non-governmental organisation observers, having obtained my ticket for a seat in this section even before 7AM! Then once again, I had to wait for the programme to start at 9AM. As one who enjoys “people watching”, especially in international environments, and well ensconced in my fourth floor balcony seat, I enjoyed observing the arrival of some 3000 delegates to this High Level Meeting, displaying a range of national costumes, business suits, as well as a surprising share of people in casual dress.

UN General  Assembly President called the meeting to order and extended a special welcome to the participants, including  30 Heads of State, He declared, “This High-level Meeting is a unique opportunity to reiterate our collective commitment and to step up our campaign against AIDS,” In fact, the dates of the meeting coincided almost exactly, but some thirty years previously, to the first diagnosis of AIDS among a small group of men in the USA (at that time, we did not yet know that thousands of others, mainly living in Eastern and Central Africa, also were suffering from this disease that destroys the immune systems of those living with it). At the same time, the event was convened to inaugurate the “last stretch” to achieve the pandemic-related Millennium Development Goals by their 2015 target date.

But Mr. Deiss did not limit his encouragement to governments – he also recognized civil society, including non-governmental and faith-based organisations, among the key stakeholders in efforts to eliminate HIV in the future: “I believe that if we are to succeed, it is essential for our actions to be based on a broad partnership in which governments, the private sector and civil society join forces and, together, play a greater governance role in efforts to combat the virus.”

Finally, in keeping with the UN principle of GIPA (Greater Involvement of People Living with AIDS), the UN General Assembly President identified people with firsthand experience of the virus as key stakeholders: “Universal access [to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support] implies social justice and social inclusion. Persons living with the virus must be stakeholders in every aspect of our effort. Their experiences and their stories are essential in developing an effective strategy for combating the epidemic.”

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon outlined a future road map for the global response to AIDS: to lower costs and deliver better programmes; commit to accountability; ensure that HIV responses promote the health, human rights, security and dignity of women and girls; and trigger a “prevention revolution,” harnessing the power of youth and new communications technology to reach the entire world. He maintained, “If we take these five steps, we can stop AIDS. We can end the fear. We can stop the suffering and death it brings. We can get to an AIDS-free world.”

Mr. Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, began his address by reminding the assembled delegates about the fear and stigmatizing behaviour that was prevalent during the early days of AIDS but that persists to this day in many countries: “People were afraid of each other and there was no hope.  “This image should not disappear.  It is part of our history.”

He reviewed the progress achieved over the years: 6.6 million HIV-infected people have attained access to life-saving and life-extending anti-retroviral medicines; new infection rates have been reduced significantly in 56 countries, including 36 in Africa.

He expressed deep regret, however, that AIDS has become  a “metaphor for inequality,” and noted that 1.8 million people living in developing countries die from AIDS-related illnesses each year; 9 million people are still waiting for treatment; and that, in high-income, a new HIV-free generation is emerging, while, in low-income countries,  millions of babies still are acquiring the virus from their HIV-infected mothers.

In conclusion, he stated emphatically, “We are at a defining moment. It is time to agree on a transformational agenda to end this epidemic,” he said.  That agenda must achieve zero HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths and it must become a reality.”

In additional to myself, other Caritas-related delegates to the UN High Level Session on AIDS include Mr. Joseph C. Donnelly, Head of CI Delegation in New York; as well as Ms. Finola Finnan and Ms. Anne-Marie Coonan, of Trócaire.