Plenary Presentation at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS
by Dr. Christoph Benn representing the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches
June 27, 2001

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The World Council of Churches would like to express its sincere appreciation to the United Nations for organizing this important special session on HIV/AIDS and its gratitude for being allowed to present this statement.

I am standing here for Rev. Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest from Uganda who is living with HIV/AIDS. He was supposed to speak on behalf of our delegation but unfortunately today he fell ill and is unable to be with us. I would like us all to remember Rev. Gideon in our thoughts and prayers.

This incident demonstrates again how this disease affects countless individuals around the world. It also shows that the churches are themselves in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Many in the church family are ill, infected or affected. There is no division between us and them.

HIV/AIDS is an illness that violates Godís will for His creation. Recognition of and respect for the dignity of each human person, regardless of circumstance, is foundational to all of our responses and actions.

This dignity is best respected by protecting the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and promoting an attitude of care and solidarity which rejects all forms of stigmatization and discrimination. We must fight HIV/AIDS and not its victims.

All persons infected and affected by HIV/AIDS should be accepted in their own communities and receive support and care, including access to treatment and the churches are committed to use all its resources to support these efforts.

High risk and vulnerable groups (e.g. persons with drug dependencies, prisoners, refugees, migrant populations, internally displaced persons, people of homosexual orientation) require particular attention and accompaniment fully respecting their essential human rights.

The particular risks of women must be addressed through prevention, care and treatment. More fundamentally, the social, political and economic structures and systems, which create their vulnerability, must be challenged. The particular needs and risks of youth, including those not yet affected, must be addressed with urgency.

Out of respect for life, proven methods of preventing HIV/AIDS, including abstinence, e.g. in the form of delayed sexual activity in young people, faithfulness in sexual relationships and the use of condoms, must be promoted and supported. I would like to dismiss the widespread myth that all churches and religious organisations are against the use of condoms. The WCC with its 340 member churches all around the world has adopted an official policy acknowledging the use of condoms as one option in the prevention of HIV transmission.

HIV/AIDS is understood as a poverty-related disease; economic, social and political structures and systems, including international debt, that allow the spread of HIV/AIDS must be addressed within this context.

Harmful beliefs, practices and traditions in societies and in churches that increase the spread of the HIV/AIDS must be challenged.

Churches understand that governments at all levels have a primary responsibility to ensure and protect public health, and that this responsibility must be reflected in funding patterns and demonstrated by political will. But Churches are prepared to work cooperatively with all people of good-will which includes other religious communities, community based organizations, governments and UN agencies in responding to HIV/AIDS.

I am speaking here on behalf of the WCC and cannot claim to speak for all other faith-based organizations (FBO). But the WCC has facilitated the formation of a broad coalition of FBOs and issued a statement supported by many different faith traditions and organisations. This statement has been distributed at this UN Special Session and will be send to the UN Secretary General after this assembly. Let me close by reading the last paragraph of this joint statement of FBOs.

The international community can take this opportunity offered by this UNGASS on HIV/AIDS to build on the unique resources offered by FBOs given our local community presence, influence, spirit of volunteerism and genuine compassion facilitated by our spiritual mandate. Governments alone will not be able to launch the broad-based approach that is required to address this problem decisively. This Special Session on HIV/AIDS should lead to a broad coalition between governments, UN organisations, civil society, and NGOs including faith-based organisations. Given this joint co-operation and the necessary resources we can make a tremendous difference to the fight against AIDS in terms of prevention, care and treatment. The FBOs represented at this Special General Assembly on HIV/AIDS and supporting this statement realize that we cannot claim to speak for all world religions and religious organisations. But we wish to express our sincere commitment to continuing to work within our own communities for the dignity and rights of People Living with HIV/AIDS, for an attitude of care and solidarity that rejects all forms of stigma and discrimination, for an open atmosphere of dialogue in which the sensitive root causes of HIV/AIDS can be addressed and for a strong advocacy to mobilise all the necessary resources for an effective global response to the pandemic.

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