Close to two dozen members of activist groups ACT-UP, Oxfam America and the Health GAP Coalition were forcibly removed from the United Nations headquarters Tuesday afternoon after they marched through the basement of the building, calling for debt relief and greater access to AIDS drugs in developing nations. The protest was a tame affair by ACT-UP standards, but no less brave than usual given the U.N.'s ban on demonstrations in its building. It was a continuation of the controversy that began on Monday when U.N. member states and other concerned groups kicked off their meeting about the international AIDS crisis.
Shaking pill bottles filled with pennies, the protesters chanted: "Pills cost pennies, greed costs lives, billions for the fund or millions die." Though the action lasted only a few minutes before a swarm of U.N. security officers sealed off the corridor in the basement and contained the group, the activists managed to bewilder bystanders and delegates alike, some of whom loudly clapped or otherwise cheered the group. The protesters had intended to march around a crowded cafeteria in the bowels of the U.N. headquarters, but made a tactical mistake when they marched down a hallway that led to an exit instead.
A security officer cornered one demonstrator and warned him sternly: "You were told that the U.N. does not allow protests." Before I could ask him for his name, he had been removed from the building. Security officers quickly separated demonstrators from the press and delegates and ushered them out of the building. There were no immediate reports of arrests, but organizer Paul Davis of ACT-UP Philadelphia told Salon that U.N. officials are threatening to permanently ban the organizations from its headquarters.
Minutes earlier, the coalition of activist groups held a U.N.-sanctioned press conference for reporters that included speakers from Africa, Latin America and India, and pledged support for the global AIDS fund. But they also criticized U.N. member states for not doing more to lower drug prices through compulsory licensing and generic manufacture of drugs. The group also called for debt relief and poverty eradication measures to help developing countries deal with the costs of healthcare.
"Fundamentally, we support the fund and the secretary general's call for a $7 billion to $10 billion fund," said Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. "However, we have a variety of concerns about the fund, the amount of money that's been contributed so far and the level of commitment we see among the delegations who are present here today and through the course of the week."
Offenheiser criticized the U.N. for its apparent focus on prevention rather than treatment this week. "For us, those are not separable concepts. It's not a morally acceptable position from our point of view. A $1.1-2 billion [plan] in effect is a public statement that all we care about is prevention, we don't care about treatment. That's not an acceptable amount of money from the international community to deal with this crisis."
Offenheiser also leveled criticism at the pharmaceutical industry. "While we support treatment, we don't support corporate welfare," he said. "The fund cannot underwrite the patent monopolies enjoyed by pharmaceuticals. You need to cut the costs of medication. And we need global laws to protect patients' lives, not profits."