25 June 2001


Press Briefing


The fact that Member States had sat down and discussed the issue of HIV/AIDS in its entirety for the very first time, and had been able to reach agreement on a very substantial text, was an extraordinary step forward, Penny Wensley (Australia), co-facilitator of negotiations on the draft declaration of the special session of the General Assembly on HIV/AIDS, told correspondents this morning at a Headquarters press briefing.

While all of the regional Groups of countries were unhappy, feeling they had stretched well outside their “comfort zones”, there was nevertheless a sense that everyone was “in this together”, confronting a global crisis that required a global response.  No one could have said it better, she added, than the Secretary-General this morning when he spoke about what needed to be done, and how everyone had to accept the need to change the way they thought and acted.  That applied to all members of the United Nations.  A careful look at the draft declaration would show that it had been crafted in such a way as to present some very strong, progressive language, she added.

She said delegations had negotiated extensively on the text of the draft declaration throughout the weekend and Sunday night.  The text had been accepted “as is” by all Groups except one, which was meeting presently to consider the text.  General Assembly President Harri Holkeri had indicated from the podium that he intended to present the text later today.  Frankly, it had been a very difficult negotiation.  The issues had raised profound sensitivities.  The subject was extremely complex, and reaching agreement among 189 Member States and Observers had been difficult.  Everyone had also been very conscious of the keen interest of thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society groups, and the business community.  Overall, there had been a sense of a very great responsibility.

The declaration that the President would present would represent “a quantum leap” in terms of the international community dealing with the complex range of issues that the pandemic raised, she said.  The document that had been presented by the co-facilitators at 4:30 a.m. today to the General Assembly President clearly contained many compromises.  There were careful qualifications and a careful use of language to try to accommodate the concerns of various delegations.  The document was also very strong and very clear in many, many areas.  It offered significant targets and strategies for Governments and the private sector, and at the national, regional and global levels -- it would be a very, very valuable blueprint for future action.  So, while there was still a little way to go before learning whether it had gained complete acceptance from all Governments, the text was a very significant outcome of this special session.

Asked about the specific language that was causing the problems and what shifts might overcome it, she said that essentially negotiations had concluded.  The text had been presented; now it was a question of whether all Member States were prepared to accept it or not.  The final points of negotiation were focused on vulnerable groups and on the language describing vulnerable groups and the groups most at risk.  It also centred on some references in relation to HIV/AIDS and human rights, as well as on some language relating to the empowerment of

women, and giving them the capacity to make decisions freely about their sexuality.  It also involved some cultural references.  In addition, statements had been made that there were some obstacles of a legal, financial, economic, social and cultural nature that could hamper prevention, care, support and treatment.  There were some other smaller things, but essentially the difficulties revolved around HIV/AIDS and human rights, women's rights, and how to refer to and describe vulnerable groups.

Inevitably, she continued, any major negotiation involved a compromise.  As a chairman of a process, when everybody was unhappy, then there was a sense that maybe the middle ground had been found.  All of the major Groups that were negotiating –- individual key delegations -– had accepted the compromise text very reluctantly.  The Group that was still considering its position, namely, the Organization of Islamic States, had been clear, from the outset, that it had profound concerns about language that might be in conflict with their religious and cultural values.  We have tried throughout the process to be sensitive to that.  It was appropriate to be responsive and address those concerns and, hopefully, that Group, like the others, might decide that even though they found some aspects of the language still very difficult to accept, they might be able to do so.

Another correspondent suggested that the concern being expressed by the Organization of Islamic States was valid.

Ms. Wensley said that was why co-facilitators and other delegates had worked very hard to ensure that there was full respect for their views and perspectives.  Once issued, the document would contain very strong references to the importance of respect for cultural values and religious beliefs.  It was not just the Islamic Group.  Frankly, many churches and faith-basedorganizations were playing a very significant role in helping through the struggle of the past twenty years to deal with the pandemic in delivering care, support and treatment.  That had infused the discussions.  It was not just the Islamic Group.  The text would show that there had been a very major effort to take account of those sensitivities and of the positive elements of religious organizations and faith-based groups that could contribute to actually dealing with the pandemic.

What specific language about women's rights issues appeared to be objectionable? another correspondent asked.

She said she had not used the word "objectionable".  She had said that those were areas where there was controversy.  Part of the difficulty in negotiating a document -- and having it send clear, succinct messages that were credible and easily read and understood by people outside a United Nations context -- was avoiding the pitfall of quoting great slabs of agreed text from "Cairo" or "Beijing plus 5" or whatever".  There was a lot of difficulty trying to find a way around convoluted language that had been crafted over years in different Conferences to give reassurances to different groups that had different perspectives about the empowerment of women. 

She said the text was very strong in relation to women's rights, children, and young girls, reflecting a profound awareness that ran right through the discussions that women and girls were particularly vulnerable and deserved

priority with respect to trying to find ways to assist them to protect themselves from HIV infection.  At the same time, everyone knew that those issues raised sensitive matters about contraception, family planning, education and advice, but the text contained references that took account of cultural values and so on. 

      Another correspondent recalled her suggestion that the negotiations were essentially complete, and asked whether that meant that the text would not change further.     

She said there was a sense this morning that there could be no further negotiation, that the negotiations had run their course and delegations would now want to focus on the session, itself.  There was a widely held view that it was simply out of the question to continue to negotiate, but "let us see the outcome of these final discussions and, at that point, the President and the co-facilitators will consider whether there is anything more that could or should be done".

Replying to a question about when the Islamic Group had expressed its concerns over the draft text, she said that there had been a clear understanding when negotiations had ended early in the morning that a number of Groups and individual countries would take the proposals back to their Groups and provide the President and co-facilitators with their response.  It was very difficult for the Islamic Group and others at 3:30 a.m. to convene meetings of numerous delegations.  The European Union, for example, had met at 8 a.m. and conveyed their response as agreed, and others had done the same.  So, it was a process that was running its course.  There was nothing confrontational about it.  It was perfectly reasonable to have delegations and Groups take time in the freshness of day to consider whether they were in a position to accept the text.  It had been agreed to have a meeting after the responses and reactions of all Groups were received.  There was one that remained outstanding, and she was looking forward to hearing their views.  Then it would be determined whether anything further needed to be done before the President issued the text. 

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For information media. Not an official record.