United Nations General Assembly
Special Session on HIV/AIDS
27 June 2001

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement protects life and health. It ensures respect for the human being. It supports those in need, without discrimination. We have taken too long to understand what that means in the context of HIV and AIDS. For many years, we were blind to what was happening, deaf to those who told us.
We used to believe that people living with HIV and AIDS were someone else. We used to think that the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement counted 100 000 persons living with HIV and AIDS. We were wrong.

All 100 million of us, volunteers, members and staff, belong to a Movement that lives with HIV and AIDS. We are members of communities that are being devastated by the biggest humanitarian catastrophe the world faces today.

I have seen that devastation. I have seen how HIV and AIDS turns communities upside-down. How the pandemic ravages the ranks of the adults; the parents, the breadwinners, the providers of care. When adults are no longer there, or confined to sickbeds, others must take on their responsibilities. I have seen children, who must steal in order to care for their younger siblings. I have met tired, overburdened grandmothers, in charge of large numbers of grandchildren, without an income, without a pension. Because there is no one else.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement provides a response that limits the spread of the disease. It is in the communities that the battle against HIV and AIDS is going to be won. That is where we, the volunteers, help families and communities care for their own members. That is where we use our unique network to promote prevention.

Because volunteers are in the community. We are part of it, we speak the language, we know the jokes. Volunteers are the friends, peers and leaders who are able to change mindsets, and to raise awareness. We mobilise the community to reach individuals and families. Young volunteers use their courage and power. They take the leadership, to convert the prevention message into a change in behaviour in young people around them. Billboards and lectures alone will not provide that change in behaviour. You change through the influence of your peers. When they change, your are closer to change yourself.

I am proud to state that our National Societies are committed to this important work. Last year, 53 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies throughout Africa pledged to mobilise two million volunteers for the fight against the virus over the next ten years.

We have made a commitment to reduce the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS. To promote understanding that people living with HIV and AIDS are crucial partners in our response to the pandemic. The spread of this virus is encouraged by stigmatisation, discrimination, exclusion and limited choice. We - individuals, organisations, institutions and Governments - must create a stable and caring environment for people living with HIV and AIDS in which they can be supported and appreciated. We must confirm their humanity.

Looking at ourselves, at our own attitudes and prejudices, is the first step in the fight against discrimination. We are not free from it. We must state clearly that there is no room for discrimination in the Red Cross Movement. That we will not tolerate any attempt to restrict or exclude people living with HIV and AIDS.

We must extend the protection of our emblems. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent emblems are powerful. They mean protection. They evoke our fundamental principles: Humanity, impartiality and voluntary service. The principles our Movement have always used to protect and care for vulnerable people. Against all discrimination and stigmatisation.

We are constructing a solid platform for our efforts to combat the pandemic. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has reached out, and established close co-operation with complementary and committed partners - the Global Network of People living with HIV/AIDS (GNP+), UNAIDS, and others.

We call on governments to build partnerships with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and with other members of civil society to protect and care for people living with HIV and AIDS. We look to the UN agencies for partnerships, so that our joint actions help combat the pandemic. With the private sector, we seek alliances to provide access to affordable treatments, and to protect employees.

Yesterday, five of our volunteers who are living with HIV participated in a Dialogue Session with Governments. They told you about their work. They also told you about the fear and the scepticism they have met, faced and overcome; about the need to forge alliances between governments and civil society; about the need to secure the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS; and about their victories: the many people they have helped and supported. I am humbled by their efforts and contributions. Words cannot express the respect I feel for their courage, their generosity, their humanity.

They, and all other volunteers, are vital parts of the solution. Not our programmes alone. Not our declarations. Volunteers are the ones who dare, who break the silence, who risk exclusion. They are the ones who can turn back the tide of the epidemic, who can break the outcast image. My job - and ours - is to support and empower them.