By Judy Aita
Washington File United Nations Correspondent
United Nations -- On Monday, January 10, for the first time in its history, the U.N. Security Council will meet to address a critical health issue: the impact of the AIDS epidemic on peace and security in Africa. Chairing the session will be U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
The Security Council session will be the first in a series of meetings this month, which the United States, as president of the council for January, has declared the "Month of Africa." U.S. chief envoy Richard Holbrooke will use the U.S. council presidency to focus on regional conflicts on the continent and the transnational issues of refugees and the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
The meeting on AIDS "is unprecedented in the history of the United Nations," Holbrooke said in a statement issued by his office January 5. "AIDS is far more than a health issue in Africa, it is also a security issue. Vice President Gore will address the changing nature of security threats around the globe, including, specifically, the security threat presented by AIDS in Africa."
AIDS "is jeopardizing the advances that these countries have made ... and it jeopardizes their economic and security situation," Holbrooke said during a press conference at the United Nations on December 20, 1999. He had just returned from an 11-nation visit to the continent.
"Twenty-five to 30 percent of the
population of some of the key countries in Africa is now carrying the HIV
virus or has AIDS,"
Holbrooke said. "It is being transmitted at a very high rate -- perhaps as high as 50 percent -- from pregnant women to children.
"It is so heavily stigmatized in most of the area -- with the exception of Senegal and Uganda -- that people don't admit they have the disease because they're afraid they'll lose their jobs," he said.
Holbrooke recalled that the U.S. delegation he traveled with met with six pregnant women who have AIDS in Windhoek, Namibia. "They came in a covered van to a room with curtains and they told us quite frankly that if they were identified publicly they'd lose their jobs, and implicit in this was something even more frightening: they hadn't told their husbands."
"In Lusaka [Zambia], we went to an even more terrifying scene: an orphanage which was actually a bus depot. Hundreds and hundreds of children ... were trying to get help, but 80 to 90 percent of them would be put out on the street that night, where they would be vulnerable to either spreading the disease or receiving it. People don't want to get tested," he said.
Out of 11 million orphans caused by the AIDS epidemic around the world, 90 percent are African children, according to the UNAIDS program (Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS).
The ambassador has scheduled meetings to focus international attention on other African issues throughout the month. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata will participate in the council's discussion on refugees in Africa on January 13; former South African President Nelson Mandela, the facilitator of the Arusha peace process, will brief the council on the situation in Burundi on January 19; and African leaders will be at U.N. headquarters to participate in a meeting on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on January 24. The council will also have a session devoted to Angola and the efforts of the U.N. Sanctions Committee to tighten the economic embargo on UNITA on January 18 and a "wrap-up" session on January 31.
Ambassador Holbrooke said that while other areas such as the Balkans and East Timor demand the council's attention, "right now the most urgent attention must be on conflict prevention and conflict resolution in Africa.
"Africa is the area right now which has the greatest capacity to explode and the greatest need for our attention," the ambassador said.
Of the 48 least-developed countries in the world, 33 are in Africa, according to the United Nations. Fifteen sub-Saharan African countries are currently faced with exceptional food emergencies and in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, the food supplies of more than 10 million people are threatened by civil conflicts.
"We have a situation in Burundi that could explode. ... We have a situation in Congo which is even more complicated than Bosnia but very similar in the sense that you have internal factions with external support, all sorts of internal by-play, and the war continuing," Holbrooke said during his December press conference.
"In Angola, the war has been going on for 35 years and I don't think people can just sit back and say, 'Well, its always going to be that way,' when the country is resource-rich and the people are in the most desperate shape," the ambassador said.
Holbrooke said that the international community must be involved in ending Africa's conflicts because it "always ends up dealing with the consequences of these wars" through such programs as those of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), and the World Food Program (WFP).
"It is imperative that we deal not simply with the consequences, which end up costing the international community hundreds of millions of dollars. We also need to deal with the causes of the wars. And that's what the Security Council was designed for," he said.
Holbrooke acknowledged that the United States has been "slowing down" the peacekeeping request for the DRC. But he quickly pointed out that the U.S. has been "slowing it down until we get it right."
The United States wants the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations to specify the size, configuration, and costs of the Congo operation and is waiting for the Organization of African Unity facilitator, former Botswana President Masire, to begin work, he pointed out.
Failed U.N. peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Bosnia "almost killed the U.N.," Holbrooke continued. U.N. operations in Kosovo and East Timor offer hope that the U.N. can once again be an effective instrument for peace, he said, but the DRC will be "perhaps the most difficult test."
"The future of the U.N. will be heavily determined by getting it right in central Africa in the coming cycle. It's going to be a formidable challenge," Holbrooke said.
Nevertheless, Holbrooke said that not all of Africa is negative.
"Namibia and Mozambique had good, democratic elections. Events in Nigeria, the largest country by population, in the last year have been very heartening," the ambassador said.
"We were in Mali, where we had wonderful talks with the new president. ... We went to Niger to see the new president-elect," he said. "Everywhere there are democracies. And that democracy should be strengthened and reinforced."
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)