UNITED NATIONS - Ignoring appeals to avert a "culture war," Muslim states threw the first UN General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS into disarray Monday with a filibuster over the participation of a gay and lesbian movement.
The incident raised further doubt that the three-day conference -- the first on a public health issue in the 56-year history of the United Nations -- would reach agreement on a political blueprint for fighting the AIDS epidemic.
After two and a half hours of rancorous debate, 62 countries supported a Canadian motion to admit Karyn Kaplan, of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, to one of four round-tables during the three-day conference.
The United Nations Secretariat Building in New York is lit up with the red AIDS ribbon on June 23, 2001 to spotlight the General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS running June 25-27. Political leaders, activists, scientists, and humanitarian relief organizers will gather for the event, the first time the U.N. General Assembly has convened to discuss a health issue. (Eskinder Debebe/UN via Reuters)
Another 30 countries abstained, while most Islamic states refused to cast their votes after failing in a long series of procedural challenges to the Assembly president, Harri Holkeri, to have the motion thrown out.
South Africa's ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo, warned delegates after the vote that they had trodden "a road that will make working in the UN more difficult than it is".
He reminded them that "this is a conference about people who are dying from HIV/AIDS," and said the victims of the epidemic were "white people, black people, gay people, non-gay people, all people".
Kumalo appealed to each side not to question the other's motives, saying all were "very good members of the United Nations" whose input was needed to global efforts to halt a disease that has already killed 22 million people.
The debate brought into the open disagreements which had beset talks held behind closed doors by a committee drafting a declaration that sets out targets for halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Muslim delegates in the committee had tried to water down references to homosexuals, sex workers, drug users and prison inmates in the declaration.
Penny Wensley, Australia's ambassador to the UN and committee co-chair, said the final drafting session broke up at about 3:00 am (0700 GMT) Monday "with a sense that negotiations had run their course".
She told reporters that it was "an extraordinary step forward" that states had been able to discuss such sensitive matters at all.
"Everyone who took part will realise that they have been part of making history," she said.
The final draft contained "strong and progressive language," she said, but also took note of the range of views on "sensitive and complex issues."
The group of countries belonging to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference had not announced by Monday evening whether they could accept the text, but UN officials said they were under great pressure to do so.
During the procedural wranglings, not one speaker explained why Kaplan should be barred from the round-table, although Pakistan, for example, said more than once that it was acting on principle.
Delegates from Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sudan repeatedly questioned the quorum of the Assembly and challenged Holkeri's rulings, some in terms that bordered on insolence.
At one point, a clearly exasperated Holkeri slammed down his gavel to silence a Pakistani diplomat who said the debate "should be ruled by the Assembly's rules of procedure, not by your rulings."
Raising a point of order for the fourth time, a Malaysian speaker told Holkeri "this is obviously a futile exercise" since, she said, he had given no previous reply.
A Libyan representative corrected Holkeri when the president referred to his country as the Libyan Republic, rather than the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
The Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Mohammed el-Douri, asked for the floor to explain that, although his country has lost its vote in the General Assembly, if it were able to vote, it would have abstained.
Copyright © 2001 AFP