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Canada and the UN: Building Bridges to Overcome HIV/AIDS, 1994


What was the greatest threat to societal peace in 1994? The rapidly spreading HIV/AIDS epidemic was surely a contender for this dubious distinction. By the mid-1990’s, AIDS had killed 6 million people worldwide, some 21 million people were living with HIV, and in five different countries of hardest-hit Africa, more than one in ten adults were HIV-infected.

The UN system, particularly WHO, had begun developing programs to help affected countries. But these programs were uncoordinated, narrowly-based, and devoid of any inter-agency focus.

Recognizing this, two WHO staff members approached Canadian UN delegates, asking us to take the lead in creating a joint and co-sponsored UN program, later to be known as UNAIDS. We accepted this challenge, and set our sights on getting a UNAIDS resolution adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

This was no easy task. Traditionally UN economic and social resolutions are formulated through bargaining sessions between donor and recipient countries, with the former wanting to do less and the latter wanting to have more. This is often a debilitating process, more conducive to erecting walls than building international bridges.

So we decided to dispense with this usual procedure in favor of reaching out to the most affected regions right from the outset. We established a small core group, initially including Canada, Uganda (with one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world) and India (with the highest absolute number of HIV/AIDS cases).

Ugandan and Indian delegates then gathered support from other African and Asian governments, while we expanded our core group to Sweden to get the Europeans on board; and, Argentina to gather support from the Americas region. We also worked closely with Australia, whose delegation would chair all 1994 ECOSOC meetings on this subject.

We asked the UN development system to put together an outline describing what UNAIDS would look like, but they were not yet able to do so. So we developed this outline ourselves, and attached it to the draft UNAIDS resolution we had already crafted. This two-part document then became the focus of ECOSOC negotiations.

In the end, negotiations were a breeze. With our united inter-regional front, our resolution gained the sponsorship of 50 countries, and was adopted, without opposition, during ECOSOC’s 1994 summer session.

Congratulating Canada on its leadership, Sweden called it “probably the most significant single decision” of the session.

And so UNAIDS was created, with an initial membership of UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA, UNESCO and the World Bank. Later five other organizations joined, for a total of eleven. To this day, the UNAIDS family remains the focal point for UN advocacy and programming aimed at overcoming the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.


By: DJ Kiddo

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