Honorable Chief Minister, Honorable Ministers of Health, Officials of the US-Virgin Island Administration, Honorable Members of the US Congress, Mrs. Donna Christian-Christensen and Mr. Donald Payne, Ambassador Christopher Thomas, Chairman of the Inter-American Economic Council , Mr. Barry Featherman, Sir George Alleyne, Assistant Secretary General Eddy Green, Esteemed Panelists, Special Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am pleased to have this opportunity to share with you some thoughts and policy objectives of the Organization of American States on the issue of HIV/AIDS and its implication for human security in the Caribbean. I thank the Inter-American Economic Council for this opportunity and for organizing this important conference.
Many of you present today have been at the forefront of the fight against HIV/AIDS at different levels. This morning’s panels have enlightened us all with insights, analysis and figures about the gravity of the impact of HIV/Aids in the Caribbean. Today, I am here to assure you of my organization’s commitment to keeping this issue high on the political agenda in the inter-american system and I will raise some issues that in terms of impact go beyond the immediate health care challenges the countries in the Caribbean face, because this issue is a complicated one, one that requires a multi-disciplinary approach and – as indicated this morning - also demands a major mindset change in society at all levels.
But let me first inform you that at the highest political levels in the Western Hemisphere HIV/Aids has drawn attention and action. You may recall that in 2001, at the Second Summit of the Americas held in Quebec City, Canada, Heads of Government of the Hemisphere acknowledged
“HIV/AIDS as another major threat to the security of our people”
and in their Plan of Action pledged that
“our governments will commit, at the highest level, to combat HIV/AIDS and its consequences, recognizing that this disease is a major threat to the security of our people.”
That commitment from Heads of Government represented an important moment in the Americas as it sent a clear signal to all segments of our communities – including youth and seniors, men and women, public institutions and private corporations – that this scourge would be viewed as a priority area for engaged attention and action.
And this commitment has been reaffirmed subsequently in many other hemispheric documents, like the Bridgetown Declaration in 2002 on the multidimensional nature of security threats, and in the 2003 Declaration on Security in the Americas, adopted in Mexico City.
The current priorities of our Organization – democracy, integral development and multidimensional security - speak to a new reality which recognizes that these areas are self-reinforcing and must be looked at within the framework of a multi-sectoral and cross-cutting approach. In our view HIV/AIDS, if not effectively an urgently tackled poses a clear threat to the sustainable development, social stability and human security of the Caribbean.
Today, when we speak of rights, freedoms and democracy as stipulated in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, we must also focus on the development and security of the individual. The OAS Declaration on Security in the Americas captures the important nexus between protecting the security of the individual and also creating appropriate political and social networks so the individual can flourish and fulfill their human and democratic potential.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that HIV/AIDS has been one of the key issues that reinforced the multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. Forums like the one in which we are participating today underscore this point. Unlike many other critical issues that we confront as a regional and indeed a global community of nations, HIV/AIDS has cracked open the traditional insular approach to addressing tough issues and created a uniquely integrated space for dialogue and cooperation.
In the decades since independence, Caribbean countries have made important strides in improving standards of living and the quality of life for their citizens. This was substantiated last year by the United Nations Human Development Index in which six countries were rated as high, seven were considered medium and only one country received a ranking as low. Under normal circumstances, such statistics provide reason for celebration, but there are other disturbing statistics we should consider as well. The Caribbean Epidemiology Center (CAREC) noted that the HIV/AIDS pandemic has become a major developmental problem for the Caribbean; and that throughout the Western Hemisphere the Caribbean is number one in HIV/AIDS infection among women; that HIV prevalence among 15-24 year old women is 2 to 4 times higher than in all age groups and 3 to 6 times higher than men in the same age group.
These figures show a Caribbean region which risks losing its bright, creative and productive citizens to this disease. Given the means of transmission, if this trend continues, there will be a negative impact on the human capital of these countries. In addition to the loss through migration, the region is also in jeopardy of losing a significant portion of its younger population, the group from which will emerge tomorrow's political leaders, teachers, nurses, and doctors. These people are among the pool that should pay into the social security systems of their countries to provide for their retirement, to pay for their health care, to take care of their children and their elders. This has major implications for governance, national security, human security and the economic viability of many of these countries whose resources are already stretched.
Additionally, a high prevalence and incidence of HIV/AIDS could severely undermine the Caribbean’s tourism industry, leading to significant unemployment and decrease in critical foreign exchange. It is not inconceivable that we could also witness an implosion of some national social security systems under the weight of reductions in sustainable contributions and increasing expenditure demand for treatment and care.
This could also impact economic growth and unravel development in a region that almost annually struggles to recover from the devastating effects of natural disasters such as hurricanes. This tragedy of the disease could become even more acute in smaller countries where social security systems are partners in capital infrastructure investment and growth. Contraction in the contribution base therefore will not only constrain public expenditure and investments but, as the productive labor force decreases, these countries’ GDP could also decline. The situation in the Caribbean has to provoke great concern among political leaders, parliamentarians, and the business community, who should call for greater national debate and discussion in legislative bodies, to update existing legislation but to initiate new laws regulating a framework of care, protection and prevention.
It is important for all of us to understand the implications of a reduction in individual and national savings for the affected families and for the wider communities. We should not underestimate either the impact this would have on capital expenditure or consumer spending if situations arise where government and private business have to increase contributions to health care costs and treatment, to recruit and retrain employees, and to pay for temporary workers while having to maintain payroll obligations of ailing employees. Under such circumstances, government and private businesses may become disinclined to spend on public and private sector projects that in turn may lead to deterioration in the quality of life of citizens.
Within the OAS, the Inter-American Commission on Women (CIM) has seized this issue as a particularly significant challenge and threat to women and families, and indeed the fabric and foundation of our communities. In 2006, at its Bi-annual Assembly of Delegates, the topic “Gender and HIV/AIDS” represented the central theme of discussion resulting in the CIM being charged with a specific mandate to develop a Work Plan on how the OAS can effectively address the issue of HIV/AIDS in partnership with other members of the inter-American system.
The Inter-American Commission of Women is focusing attention on the implications of this disease for women in the Americas. We realize that this trend must be examined within the context of a region where the influence and contributions of women on every aspect of life is intrinsic. For instance, in many households, women are the principal breadwinner; they often head single-family households; are the primary caregiver and mainstay of family and community networks. The contribution of women to the social and economic life and in some case to the politics of Caribbean countries is undeniable. On issues of development, democracy and governance, women remain at the heart of the socio-economic fabric of Caribbean societies and, more often than not, work at grassroots level to encourage and sustain local and national politics.
I am therefore encouraged by the efforts of the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Women in working with governments to better understand how the disease impacts the lives of women and society at large; and in promoting a gender sensitive perspective in policies and programs.
In this regard, let me further emphasize that a gender perspective must be inclusive of both sexes. As one of the leading causes of death in the Caribbean among both men and women between the ages of 15 and 44, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. We still have major challenges with regards to the incidence and impact of HIV/AIDS in men in the Caribbean, and the subsequent social and economic fallout.
This morning man speakers impressed on political and financial support for a regional approach and we support this policy. Let me here salute the tremendous work being done by governments in the Caribbean through the Pan-Caribbean Partnership (PANCAP) - including awareness campaigns on the enormity of the disease and how it affects men, women, girls and unborn children. Your work stands out as testimony to the value and benefits of collaboration and commitment.
I urge governments, the PANCAP and the CAREC to take advantage of this cooperative framework to share data and best practices with the OAS in an effort to develop a common database as we work to build a hemispheric partnership to jointly confront, contain and, eventually, eliminate a common challenge – a challenge that still constitutes one of the most serious threats to human security in the Caribbean.
The OAS is willing to partner with you and to intensify the collaboration with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), by incorporating the expertise and work of the Inter-American Commission on Women (CIM) to better define our roles and areas of practical partnership.
Allow me also to commend the honorable Dr. Denzil Douglas, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis and the one who holds the CARICOM portfolio on Health for his tireless efforts, vision and achievements in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We applaud governments in this region that have managed to reduce the prevalence and incidence of HIV through national responses such as HIV/AIDS Commissions, providing better access to anti-retroviral therapy, legislation, target programs, and regional networks like the PANCAP.
I must conclude today that more then ever the commitment of hemispheric political leaders to protect human security need to be translated in action. Much has been done, but much more is needed both at the national and regional level. I firmly believe that without due attention to this phenomenon in a holistic manner, the Caribbean economies will be affected negatively. A pro-active and holistic approach, with the collaboration between government, civil society and the private sector, will be in the end less costly and less traumatic.
We need to broaden and intensify the strategic partnership and cooperation between countries, within countries between the social partners, as well as with the international community, including the pharmaceutical industry. I urge the richer countries in the hemisphere to not only support the process of democracy and governance, but also to assist the poorer countries in fighting HIV/Aids by providing more financial and technical assistance, political support in the negotiations for cheaper medication, eligibility for global funds, etc.
In fact, I believe that the upcoming encounter between CARICOM Heads of Government and the USA President, in the context of the “Conference on the Caribbean”, provides an unique opportunity to sign off on a concrete package of financial and technical assistance in support of national and regional efforts.
I also strongly encourage Caribbean governments, and their Permanent Representatives to the Permanent Council, to use the hemispheric forum of the Organization of American States as a platform to address all aspects and implications of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
You have a committed partner in the leadership of the OAS. The OAS stands ready to build on the progress attained and to make sure the fight against this deadly disease receives the political and material support that our Heads of Government committed to in 2001. Therefore I look forward to the recommendations for concrete action emanating from this conference.
The Organization of American States – we all have - a stake in seeing progress in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region, in continuing to support human security, development and democracy in the Caribbean, in building peaceful and stable societies.