Mr. President
Ladies and Gentlemen

Twenty years ago when the disease known as AIDS was first diagnosed, the magnitude of its effects was unforeseeable. Few if any considered that it would become the most devastating epidemic in modern human history. With over 22 million people dead and another 36 million infected HIV/AIDS poses one of the greatest threats to economic, social and human development, creating higher levels of poverty and increasing the risk to our already fragile societies.

In the face of this enormous and frightening challenge I joined with other Heads of State and Government at the Millennium Summit last September to commit ourselves to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015. Today I return to the United Nations and join you at this Special Session to offer the assurance of the Government of Belize to engage in a global effort to accomplish this objective.

The excellent report of the Secretary General, the preparatory meetings and subsequent deliberations by experts have led to a draft declaration that provides us an opportunity to share, support and inspire each other to pool our resources in order to fight back in the firm and certain conviction that together we can win the battle over AIDS.

In November of 1999 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in South Africa, I joined my 53 other colleagues in personally pledging to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In February at the Conference of Heads of Government of CARICOM in Barbados we formed a Partnership Declaration, which followed the creation of a Caribbean Task Force on HIV/AIDS. A few weeks ago at a meeting with Heads of State and Government of Central America and the president, of the Republic of China on Taiwan I raised the issues of HIV/AIDS in our region and received his assurance of assistance.

Belize is both witness and subject to the ravages of this terrible disease in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a part of the region, we are faced with the staggering statistics that the Caribbean has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world after sub-Saharan Africa; and that AIDS is the single greatest cause of death among our youth. In Central America, we are threatened by the ever-increasing rate of infection particularly among disadvantaged and mobile populations.

In Belize the national Health Information System is currently reporting a 4.01 percent prevalence rate, ranking us as one of the highest in Central America and ninth in the Caribbean region. With a population of 250,000 people who live in small communities, the tragedy of HIV/AIDS directly affects many Belizean families and our human resources and productive capacities. The stigma associated with the disease encourages a culture of silence resulting in under reporting and increasing attempts to deny and hide its existence. Our young people, especially those of poor and migrant families are most at risk of contracting and spreading the disease along the fault lines of our society.

Once perceived to be driven by alternative lifestyles, HIV/AIDS now attacks more than our way of life, it attacks the very structure of our society -- the family. Today the face of AIDS in Belize is young and female. It has affected our personal as well as our political reality, changing how we think, how we love, whom we trust, what we teach our children and how we protect them. In short HIV/AIDS has changed our lives.

Last January HIV/AIDS was declared to be one of the greatest health challenges facing Belizeans. As a result we established a National AIDS Commission chaired by the Minister of Human Development, Women and Civil Society. The primary responsibility of this commission is to coordinate, facilitate and monitor the implementation of the National Strategic Plan, which aims to change attitudes and practices, implement intersectoral coordination and provide support services to persons living with HIV/AIDS. This multi-sectoral strategy addresses the issue of sexual behavior and practices in Belize, encouraging responsible sexual behavior and protection in addition to creating nationwide awareness of the disease and its consequences. The Commission is developing a national policy and legal framework to address issues of discrimination, education, migration and the criminalization of willful acts of transmission. On a more personal level, issues of confidentiality, compassion and respect for the dignity and quality of human lives form an integral part of the national strategic plan. But we cannot stop there.

If we are to be effective in the long term, we must learn from the experiences of those caught in the center of this whirlwind pandemic. This includes working harder to equalize the balance of power between men and women, especially our women who comprise a large percentage of our poor. Gender equality is a critical component in the process of changing sexual behavior. We know that only when a woman is free to choose how she lives her life will she possess the capacity to best protect herself from HIV/AIDS. We have also begun to deal with the vital issue of mother to child transmission.

Critical to our success is collaboration with the International Community. Support in the areas of funding, research, information sharing, access to affordable medicines and treatment is essential and requires timely and effective participation by all. We welcome the decision by the Secretary General to engage the International Business Community in this campaign.

There is no longer an excuse to shy away from our collective responsibility in the face of this global malady. Every nation must lead its own response. Nothing can substitute for a strong national commitment and ownership. An effective national response, however cannot be successful in isolation. There is need for global solidarity and support. If we are to lift the death sentence from the thousands of our fellow human beings who fall prey to HIV/AIDS daily, we must act together.

Mr. President

The Government and people of Belize declare our full commitment to halt and reverse the increasing trend of this pandemic. We know this is a tremendous undertaking, but failure on our part to act decisively will condemn countless numbers, many in the flower of their youth to certain death. To fail would be to break the most sacred compact of all-the preservation and advancement of humanity.

We have neither the time nor the resources to waste. The time for collective action is now.

Thank you.