Speech by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel at the "Responsibility and Partnership – Together against HIV/AIDS" conference

Mon, 12.03.2007
on 12 March 2007 in Bremen

Minister Schmidt,
Minister Schavan,
Mayor Röwekamp,
Ministers from the European Union and other countries,
Guests of honour,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank our Federal Minister of Health for inviting me to this conference in Bre­men to speak to you as President of the EU Council. It is a pleasure to be here. Of course, the Federal Government believes in very close political cooperation within the framework of the European Union. The motto we have given our EU Council Presidency is "Europe – succeed­ing together". And, at this point, I always like to add that Europe can only succeed together if we face up to cross-border challenges and if we really intend to tackle these challenges.
In other words, together as a continent, we must muster the will to assume responsibility for our world, global responsibility. Experience in many areas of European cooperation has shown that the best way to achieve this is to throw our collective weight behind our plans, to develop common strategies, and to make a united effort to champion them throughout the world.
Of course, we face many challenges. I will only mention them briefly here. Take energy sup­plies and climate change, for example. Both of these issues were addressed only at the end of last week by the Heads of State and Government. I think it was a good sign that we came to common conclusions. Other challenges facing us include migration, the fight against poverty and terrorism and, of course, the establishment of basic conditions for more growth, employ­ment and social security. Another challenge facing us is an issue which, time and again, is pushed out of the public limelight and which exists to an extent that many people in our coun­tries are perhaps not fully aware of. I am referring to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
For that reason, I am especially grateful to our Health Minister for consciously making this particular issue one of the priorities of our Presidency of the EU Council. We know that 1.7 million people in Eastern Europe are infected with HIV/AIDS, and that some 740,000 people in Western and Central Europe suffer from it. And, of course, we know that on a worldwide level the challenges are much greater still.
But I am particularly grateful to Ms Schmidt for having made this an issue of the Presidency of the EU Council because, of course, one thing holds true for this issue, as indeed it does for all other issues: when the Europeans try to help throughout the world by giving good advice, all eyes are on them to see where they have to take action themselves. Unfortunately, we sometimes also try to sidestep the problem. Therefore, it is important that we do not push this issue aside during our Council Presidency, that we don’t pass the buck to our G8 Presidency, but rather that we say – during the EU Presidency – what we want to do so that we can then also assume our responsibility in the G8 format.
For that reason, I would like to say to you that the outcome of this conference will also be discussed by the Heads of State and Government at the European Council in June. Today, Ulla Schmidt, I felt a slight twinge when I read that the responsibility for this issue rests with the leaders; you see, we already bear a great amount of responsibility sometimes. However, given that this issue has been prepared so well, I believe it is really important that we publi­cize it and declare that the fight against HIV/AIDS is something to which the European Union as a whole is committed. We intend to set priorities, we intend to do something, we intend to show how such a dreadful disease can be countered and how the suffering that it causes can be alleviated.
AIDS can be a threat which shakes countries to the core and affects entire families. We only have to think of how many children there are who have contracted AIDS. We know that, of the more than 40 million people worldwide with the HIV virus, 70% live in sub-Saharan Africa, and that 60% of those infected in Africa are women. And that does not include the many, many children. The World Bank tells us that the gross national income and con­sequently of course the economic prosperity of many African countries will be severely weak­ened as a result of this illness alone. One must stop and think about the far-reaching conse­quences it will have for many generations to come when women are infected, when women die. The suffering and distress are immense. As Europeans, it is most certainly our responsibility to do everything we can with our prosperity, our better economy, our intact civil society, to counter this disease.
Ladies and gentlemen, they say that one-third of the working population in Africa will die of AIDS over the next 20 years. I believe that we must not stand back idly and accept this. We must recall a fact that is still not known by all: that not only have 25 million people already died of this disease but that 4 million people are infected with it every year. Those are alarm­ing figures.
We also know how hard it is to talk about this particular disease. At this point, I would like to mention one of the pioneers, if that is the right term: Rita Süssmuth, our former health minis­ter, who very courageously took the initiative and spoke about condoms when others shied away from even saying the word "condom". We should never be arrogant. When we talk about other countries and their problems and we address this issue, we must remember that it was difficult for us, too, in our society, to free this issue from taboos. Therefore I would like to thank everyone who is willing to stand up and speak out on this issue, and to declare war on this disease.
Unlike in Germany and the countries which have been members of the European Union for quite a while now, the issue in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia still depends on dramatic social upheaval there. The funds available for providing medical care to the population are scarce. Consequently, preconceptions about AIDS still have a much greater chance of being considered important. We have to counter this. Yes, funding for prevention is lacking, but given the many, many problems, there is sometimes a lack of energy to promote prevention. I believe that this conference is a good opportunity to exchange views and to give people the strength and energy to speak out in public for what they want to achieve. I hope that this con­ference – and interest in it has indeed been great – will give rise to a network of people who establish contact with each other and can go away with renewed hope for their work.
Ladies and gentlemen, fear is an important issue. The disparagement of those infected, preconcep­tions about people’s lifestyles, intolerance and rejection are things we must counter if we are to achieve anything besides the medical options available for this disease. That is why, for over 20 years now, there has been an AIDS prevention campaign in Germany with the motto "AIDS affects us all". I believe this motto is still highly topical – even though we have seen some encouraging developments. That is why support from society is crucial in strategies aimed at preventing more people becoming infected.
And this conference itself demonstrates that everyone – the scientific community, the private sector and civil society – is called upon to take a united stand against this disease. This requires worldwide solidarity. Responsibility cannot be passed on at national borders, it must not stop at national borders. And so it is the task of the entire international community and society as a whole to reverse the current trend.
In the Millennium Development Goals, the international community committed itself expressly to developing strategies to achieve this. And so we will make a start in Europe, but we will of course also be focusing particular attention on this issue during our G8 Presidency. I can promise you that, at the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm in June, we will also have con­clusions on precisely this issue.
In other words, if we are to establish a far-reaching AIDS policy, we need an improvement in the economic, social and legal situation, particularly for women and children. Time and again, our Development Minister has pointed out that women are the key to many issues relating to the improvement of the social and economic situation in developing countries. We know how hard it is to incorporate HIV/AIDS education into the overall education system in many coun­tries. I will use my contacts in the G8 Presidency – especially at the so-called Outreach meet­ings, i.e. the meetings with emerging economies and developing countries – to point this out. In our G8 Presidency, Africa will also be a specific priority. We will be inviting the NEPAD countries – i.e. the countries who have come together in Africa to pursue transparent politics – to the G8 Summit. At these talks, we can then give this issue special treatment.
Support for developing healthcare also includes, of course, preventive measures as well as access to testing and effective therapies. Because, ladies and gentlemen, one thing is clear: if there is no prospect of treatment for an HIV-positive diagnosis, then we can hardly increase people’s willingness to take the test in the first place. Moreover, we must promote research into medicines and vaccines. It is good that the Research Minister is here today because we, the Federal Government, can of course initiate much in this field ourselves. But we must also ensure that we have strategies which are consistent and coherent. For it is no use either if everyone does their own thing; efforts must be coordinated.
The Federal Government is aware of the responsibility it shoulders. That is why, in 2007, we will continue to increase our contribution in the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis to 400 million euro. But I believe that this conference also demonstrates that it is not just a question of money, but a question of responsibility, partnership and interaction. These are the keywords which we need for an exchange of views such as the one which is possible at this conference. It is a matter of assuming responsibility within a partnership.
For this reason, I would like to express my sincere thanks for the support given in planning and holding this conference. Particular thanks go to Dr Piot, the Director of UNAIDS and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, for his very special efforts, even on the inter­national stage, in calling on us to tackle this disease.
This conference should reassert the fact that political responsibility has to be assumed. The Federal Government, indeed the entire Federal Government, is committed to this. Of course, this should be complemented by commitment from civil society. "Bremen" can and – when I see the large amount of interest here – "Bremen" will represent a new chapter in global responsibility in the fight against HIV/AIDS. I believe that the word "partnership" also describes the direction in which we want to move. Ultimately, we should build up a dense network which also includes international organizations.
At this point, I would like to pay special tribute to the work of the NGOs. NGOs are a strong, an important partner for developing and implementing measures, particularly in the field of prevention. They are an indispensable partner; it would be unimaginable for them not to be there. And for that, they deserve thanks and recognition. For their work is often difficult, some­times out of the public eye, and not appreciated by everyone in society. Let me express my sincere gratitude to all those who are active in the NGOs.
If prevention is to be truly effective, this necessitates a very great degree of interference in existing behaviour patterns in humans, and new behaviour patterns need to be established. Such behaviour is, of course, closely linked to very intimate, very private, personal situations. The risks of infection must be conveyed to people in a way which is understandable; those infected must understand the risks. Tireless dedication is required because so many taboos are involved, because this is a question of sexuality and because these are issues which, although certainly still discussed quite openly in Europe, are very difficult to talk about in many other cultures.
If we stop to think how difficult the role of women is in many countries of the world – and we do not have to look very far at all; my advice is always that we should not be too arrogant – then we will also see what things have to be brought out into the open, and which thought processes have to be overcome. That is why the very personal commitment and work of staff in the NGOs is so important.
I would also like to thank all the celebrities who have become involved, including those who cannot be here at the conference. Their involvement is anything but a matter of course. There are many problems in this world. And so, I would like to thank Her Highness The Begum Aga Khan very sincerely. I would like to thank Miroslav Klose, Per Mertesacker and Gudrun Landgrebe – you are representative of the many, many celebrities who, even by means of a photo or the like, have made a clear stand against this disease, bringing it out of hiding and more into the open, giving people food for thought. For that, thank you very much.
Now, dedication, a personal willingness to do voluntary work, or a political willingness to say that you intend to do something, is one thing. But, if we are to check the AIDS pandemic, of course we also need substantial funding. That is a huge challenge, particularly for countries with weak economies. In other words, if we are serious in declaring that human dignity is indivisible, then this should also mean that we must not just worry about having adequate medical care ourselves but that we must also do everything we can to make medical care bet­ter for those affected in other countries, too.
Therefore, we intend to pay very particular attention to the issue of providing medical care. Of course, in this context, there is a call for cheaper medicines for poorer countries. We, too, want as many people as possible to be able to afford medicines or vaccinations, otherwise there would be little sense in having them. But this is a problem which, of course, cannot be solved so easily. And so we have to make sure, on the one hand, that we discuss legal ques­tions reasonably with each other and, on the other hand, that we never lose sight of the people who are affected.
And I put it to you that we cannot just look at this issue from a purely commercial perspective. Legal issues are important. But the question as to how we solve these problems and whether we find mechanisms will also determine whether we are credible. And so I ask you to take the misgivings seriously – they are necessary – but also to use this conference to identify ways of how we can move forward. We already know how not to do things. Therefore, we must adopt a positive approach. I have no doubt that those who have come together here will also attempt to do this.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that "Bremen" can become synonymous with a new Euro­pean HIV/AIDS offensive. The fact that so many representatives – including ministers – from the European Union and from our continent as a whole have come here is a sign that many people gave joined forces in this fight and that many feel committed to the task at hand.
I feel that, despite all the alarming figures, we should also remember that there is some encourage­ment to be had. For example, whereas in 1993 31% of all young pregnant women in Uganda’s capital were infected with HIV, this figure had dropped to 8.2% in 2002. This demon­strates that it is possible to achieve something. Commitment is worthwhile.
I believe – and, after all, that is the objective of this conference – that if we pool our commit­ment, if we give each other a measure of strength and courage, if we form networks, if we (and I say this as Federal Chancellor) the Heads of State and Government are willing to recog­nize and address this time and again as an important issue, and if we champion it on our travels, then this issue will not be swept under the carpet, it will not be pushed into a special­ist-policy corner but rather it will be accepted as a task of society as a whole and we will be able to achieve success despite the difficulty of the task.
On this note, I wish the Bremen Conference all the very best and once again thank Ulla Schmidt for organizing it.
Thank you very much.