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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 560-582
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Rubber Helmets: The Certain Pitfalls of Marshaling Security Council Resources to Combat AIDS in Africa
On 10 January 2000, a startling proposition was made to the members of the United Nations Security Council. Then-US Vice President and presidential candidate Albert Gore, Jr., invited the Security Council to consider Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome ("AIDS") a "global aggressor," and the burgeoning AIDS crisis in Africa a matter of "international peace and security" deserving of scrutiny by that organ. 1 In asking the Council to consider "a health issue as a security threat" for the first time in its fifty-five year history, Gore argued that the considerable death toll attributed to AIDS and the high infection rate in sub-Saharan Africa warranted viewing international peace and security "through a new and wider prism." 2 He went on to suggest that the Council's security agenda should be expanded to include the preservation of security from "constant fear and degradation . . . [and] loss of the quality of life and liberty of spirit that should belong to us all." 3 At the top of Gore's suggested agenda: "the global environmental challenge," "defeating drugs and corruption," "terror," and disease. 4 Perhaps [End Page 560] recognizing the futility of asking the Council to resolve all of the world's ills at once, former Vice President Gore singled out AIDS--in sub-Saharan Africa 5 --as the first step in this initiative.
Even more startling than the proposition itself was the relative equanimity with which it was accepted. Few state representatives publicly challenged Gore's initiative, seemingly eager to endorse any effort to raise the profile of the AIDS epidemic in an era where treatment successes in the West have resulted in a level of complacency belied by the devastation wrought by AIDS in other regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. 6 In South Africa a researcher freely admits that AIDS treatment is not a priority: "We can't afford to spend money on people who are going to die." 7 In a country where 10 percent of the population is already infected with the virus, 8 the South African example alone demonstrates the gravity of the problem. 9 These numbers are reflected in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa: a recent report concludes that the South African estimate of 4.2 million infected is closely followed by the numbers afflicted in Ethiopia (3 million), Nigeria (2.7 million) and Kenya (2.1 million). 10 It is estimated that in many sub-Saharan African nations at least 35 percent of boys now age fifteen will die of AIDS. 11 Yet do these sobering truths render the Security Council an appropriate forum to address AIDS?
Critics of Western developed nations might answer yes. A colleague has "no doubt that were the West threatened by AIDS the way Africa is, more would be demanded of the United Nations and other organs to address it effectively. But (to the West) African lives are not important, as we all know." 12 The disease has ravaged the African continent for nearly twenty years without Council notice; the belated concern reflected in Gore's call to arms is most welcome. However, even assuming the genuineness of this newly expressed concern, and putting aside any doubts as to the self-interest which must, in part, motivate Western enthusiasm for any new [End Page 561] Security Council initiative, the potential costs and minimal benefits argue against expanding the Council's mandate to include health crises, and other causes of "fear and degradation."
In the past, the exercise of jurisdiction by the Council over matters it deemed to be threats to or breaches of international peace and security was essentially limited to those circumstances falling within a traditional, conservative interpretation of that mandate. Under that interpretation, a breach of international peace and security required actual or imminent international armed conflict. Pursuant to that view, UN peacekeeping missions were mounted to monitor disputed boundaries and cease-fire agreements, and to...