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Spread of AIDS seen as security threat

by Jim Lobe

Washington, 20 Jun 2001 (IPS) - AIDS has not caused any wars but the security implications of its rapid spread in Africa and other regions must be taken far more seriously by the industrialised West, according to experts here who are calling for much stronger measures - and a lot more money - to fight the deadly epidemic.

Not only are families being decimated by the premature deaths of young men and women throughout Africa, but entire societies in Eurasia, where AIDS has established a firm beachhead, could well be destabilised unless urgent action is taken now, the experts warn.

Of particular concern to security analysts, a Pentagon study says that HIV prevalence among African militaries is particularly high, ranging in selected countries from 10% to as high as 60%. Other, anecdotal reports suggest that infected officers and soldiers are more likely to take risks and engage in criminal behaviour on the battlefield, and are less interested in peace negotiations, than those who are healthy.

Although less than one percent of the population is carrying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in nuclear-armed Russia, India, and China, infection rates are on trajectories comparable to some of the most-affected countries in Africa.

“The potential impact of such epidemics would be devastating - for those countries and for their neighbours and partners in the international system,” according to a new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), a high-level, Brussels-based group which specialises in conflict prevention and resolution.

“This is not simply the most serious health crisis in 700 years,” says Richard Holbrooke, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and the new director of the Global Business Council on HIV and AIDS. “It’s also a direct threat to social and political and economic stability.”

Holbrooke and the ICG, as well as AIDS activists, are trying to boost support for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s quest for a $10 billion global fund to wage war against HIV-AIDS, a major focus of next week’s UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS in New York.

Thus far, contributions, led by a $200 million pledge by US President George W.  Bush, are lagging far short of Annan’s goal, although Tuesday’s announcement by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates that his foundation will provide $100 million, boosted hopes for greater private sector participation.

“To address the Y2K computer virus - which yielded not a single casualty - the global community invested $200 billion,” says Sandra Thurman, the president of International AIDS Trust and White House AIDS chief under President Bill Clinton. “To contain the Serbs in Kosovo and then to keep the peace, it mobilised $46 billion.”

“AIDS has already killed 22 million men, women and children. Surely, with tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of lives at stake - and serious threats to global security - the fight against AIDS deserves no less.”

With its new report, ‘HIV-AIDS as a Security Issue’, the ICG is trying to rally more traditional foreign-policy interest groups, and especially the foreign and treasury ministries of the Group of Seven (G-7) Western countries, behind the cause. It is calling for the group to collectively pledge $5 billion to the global fund at its annual summit in Genoa next month.

“The only way this war will be won is by fully engaging the foreign policy and international security communities to join with the efforts already being undertaken by the public-health community,” according to Nils Daulaire, president of the Washington-based Global Health Council (GHC).

Last year, the Clinton administration made a formal finding that the spread of AIDS abroad had “strong national security implications” for the United States.  The current Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has described the epidemic as a “national security threat.”

At the same time, however, Bush’s contribution to the global AIDS fund has been criticised as woefully insufficient by experts, and his national security council eliminated the one staff position devoted to tracking the epidemic.

“The West as a whole has been extremely deficient in responding to the crisis,” according to Andrew Price-Smith, the director of the Project on Health, Environment and Human Security at the University of North Dakota, who is particularly worried about the consequences of the virus’ rapid spread in India.

“India will follow Africa (in infection rates),” Price-Smith says. “There, you have a nuclear power, ethnic tensions (and) enormous potential for destabilisation.”

The new ICG report argues that the AIDS crisis essentially feeds a “vicious circle of instability,” each component of which aggravates all of the others.  Thus, the loss of a parent to the disease weakens or even dissolves families, which, in turn, increases poverty, undermines the economy, and ultimately weakens the ability of government to provide services and maintain order.

As infection rates among adults exceed 5%, “the spread of disease accelerates, and becomes much more difficult to control,” according to the report.  Twenty-four African countries, including regional giants Nigeria and South Africa, and Haiti have already surpassed that rate, while Cambodia, the Bahamas and Gabon are approaching it rapidly. Botswana currently has the world’s highest rate, 35.8%.

“AIDS can be so pervasive that it destroys the very fibre of what constitutes a nation: individuals, families and communities; economic and political institutions; military and police forces,” according to the report.

Disproportionately high infection rates among civil servants, teachers and the professional class, as have been seen across Africa, are particularly destructive, because their disappearance weakens the state and deprives countries of their most educated members from which political leadership could be expected to emerge, according to the report. The ICG is particularly concerned about the impact of the virus on police and military forces, which it sees as the guarantors of social order - and national borders - in many countries.

“The implications for national security are clear: a military force that is sick and dying will not be as effective - or as disciplined - as one that is healthy,” according to the report.

“That has serious implications for international peacekeeping,” says Mark Schneider, director of ICG’s Washington office. “Host countries may be unwilling to receive African troops; and non-African troops (on peace-keeping missions) may have reservations about going to Africa.”

“There is every reason to believe that AIDS will strike with similar force at militaries outside Africa,” according to the report, which cited India and Russia, in particular. – SUNS4920

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