SG's speech - Launch of HIV/AIDS publications
Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Fale, Suva, Fiji
Friday 30 November 2007

Welcome to the Forum Secretariat and especially to any of our guests who may have not been here before. I would like to extend a special welcome to the HIV positive people who are here today, and I would like, at the outset, to pay special tribute to all of those courageous people who have put a public human face to HIV in the Pacific. We will always be in your debt. I was very happy to accept the invitation to launch the special edition of the South Pacific Association of Theological Schools Pacific Journal of Theology and the four brochures translated into Bislama, Gilbertese, Solomon Islands Pijin and Fijian for many reasons. Let me elaborate on some of these.

2. Firstly, the Forum knows the leaders of the Pacific church community to be most important partners in our efforts to improve the quality of life of Pacific people. As leaders of faith-based organisations serving the people of the Pacific Islands, we share a common vision with our political leaders as articulated in the Pacific Plan (I quote) “… that all Pacific people live free and worthwhile lives.” (end of quote). HIV and AIDS has been described as the most serious problem facing the world today, of the same order as the threat of nuclear weapons, terrorism, global warming and sea level rise – all areas of manifest concern to faith-based organisations. In that connection, may I take this opportunity to congratulate the Pacific churches for their pro-active stance as regards the issue of global warming and sea level rise. Your Wear Red campaign on 24th November has been the most recent demonstration of this – a further means of drawing attention to the plight of our more vulnerable Pacific people, it is to be hoped that it will also provide a further stimulus for discussion in the wider Pacific community about these critical issues that affect the lives of Pacific people both living and in the future.

3. The second reason I was happy to accept the invitation to launch these materials is because stigma and discrimination remain discouraging obstacles to an effective response to HIV and AIDS and I am very grateful for the opportunity to associate myself with efforts to alleviate them. The church community must surely build on the good work it has started to overcome these obstacles. A good start has been made in the partnerships which have been formed, as reflected, for example, in the development and production of the materials we are launching here today.

4. Thirdly, the inter-actions that can be generated at gatherings such as this can strengthen partnerships and generate new alliances. The need for a multisectoral response – that is action from all sectors – to address HIV-related issues makes the involvement of Pacific faith-based organisations even more imperative. These inter related issues include violence against women, increasing alcohol and drug abuse, breakdown in marriages and family units, soaring unemployment, rising suicide and mental health problems, social justice, sex and family life education. These are all, incidentally cross cutting issues which straddle the four pillars of the Pacific Plan, which is at the core of this organisation’s work. They are bound up with the four key pillars on which the Plan rests.
i. economic growth,
ii. sustainable development,
iii. Good Governance, and
iv. human security.

5. The fourth reason is that the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat played a small part in getting the partnerships, which were responsible for the production of these important materials, established.

6. While HIV/AIDS did not get onto the Forum agenda until 2002, it has been – somewhat late you might say – very much a part of it since. The SPC was charged with the task of developing a Pacific regional strategy on HIV and AIDS in 2003 and the SPC asked PIFS reach out to the faith-based organisations to help develop the regional strategy. The Forum began conversations with several faith-based groups and collaborated with the WCC Pacific Office in the Pacific Member Churches’ Consultation on HIV/AIDS held in Nadi 30 March – 1 April 2004. This consultation resulted in the appropriately titled report “instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle”, a valuable resource which has been widely used throughout the Pacific.

7. The success of this consultation was largely due to the part played by positive people and the testimonies they offered. Hearing directly from positive people touched the hearts of the church leaders who attended the meeting. As a result, they issued a Statement of the World Council of Churches’ Pacific member churches on HIV/AIDS, which has become known as the Nadi Declaration. (details about the Nadi Declaration will be shown on the display which will be mounted at the Fale).

8. Since the Nadi Declaration, the WCC Pacific Office and a number of the church leaders who attended have been proactive in their work with positive people. They have teamed up with the UNAIDS Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development, UN agencies such as UNDP, UNICEF and UNFPA and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and organisations such as PIAF (Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation) and FJN . Some of these activities are documented in the Pacific Theological Journal we are launching today. Of particular interest are the WCC’s positive intern programme which includes sending positive people to address church communities, a curriculum on HIV/AIDS for theological colleges, dialogue with church leaders who have agreed that the wider church community needed be encouraged to address issues related to sexuality, issues which simply have to be discussed honestly and openly in this tragic era of AIDS.

9. The production and widespread distribution of the Exploding Myths brochure and its translation into Bislama, Gilbertese, Solomon Islands Pidgin and Fijian, and the SPATS Journal of Pacific Theology are aimed at reducing the silence which has surrounded topics that have long been considered by traditional, religious and community leaders as being too sensitive to discuss. The articles are an interesting mixture of theological reflection, analysis of biblical texts, surveys, poems, experiences, speeches, the stories of HIV positive people, church programmes and quotes. They are informative, challenging, provocative and will promote the debate that is necessary to overcome the myths that perpetuate ignorance. Both the Journal and the brochures will do that much more for the creation of a more caring environment for those people living with HIV and AIDS and create a better understanding in church communities about the role they can play in the response to HIV in the Pacific. Widespread discussions of the issues among the members of the SPATS (25 theological colleges in Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia, three in New Zealand and one in Australia) can only serve to educate, inform and enlighten trainee church Ministers and help them, in turn, to enlighten the wider Pacific community. It is altogether fitting that the Church is taking the lead in providing materials in the vernacular to help overcome the ignorance that contributes to stigma and discrimination.
10. The last and fifth reason is that tomorrow, 1 December, is World AIDS Day. The theme for 2007 – 2008 World AIDS Day is Leadership. The theme of leadership was chosen to challenge, encourage and indeed criticise leaders who are not keeping their promises on AIDS, their promises to provide Universal Access to prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010. The occasion is also used to celebrate leaders who are taking the initiative and acting on their promises in the fight against AIDS, and to inspire others to become leaders. Today we are here to celebrate the efforts of those leaders in the church community to stimulate discussions about HIV-related issues and to inspire leaders at all levels to do more to replace fear and discrimination with love, care and compassion for people living with HIV and AIDS.
11. While we do celebrate our achievements, it is also very much time to appreciate that so much more needs to be done, not least in this matter of getting our messages across at the country level in ways that will be widely understood. As you are aware, regional meetings result in recommendations, declarations and plans, excellent in themselves, that often do not get translated into action at the national level. There are many opportunities for us to collaborate more closely at the country level. The network of the churches is wider, more inclusive, active and influential at the community level than that of governments. For example, the communiqué from the Civil Society Forum held in Tonga in October 2007, highlighted areas of concern for regional NGOs and CSOs, and includes a comprehensive section on HIV/AIDS which identifies areas for collaboration. The WCC Pacific office and the PIAF contributed greatly to the success of the Civil Society Forum. The concerns of those who participated in the Civil Society Forum now needs to be translated into action at the national and regional level. Multi-level conversations and dialogue are required between civil society members, governments and parties that did not have the advantage of attending that Civil Society Forum in Nuku’alofa. I understand that copies of the communiqué are available for you all to take home and, as you can, join in these discussions.

12. I want to offer my sincere congratulations to all those who have been involved in producing the materials we are launching here today. Especially the South Pacific Association of Theological Schools – SPATS and its editorial board which consists of members of Interfaith, the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia, the Pacific Theological College, Pacific Regional Seminary, Pacific Conference of Churches and the University of the South Pacific. I understand that they are planning an issue on Global warming and sea level rise. So we can say that they are taking the lead in stimulating discussions about issues affecting the lives of Pacific people amongst theologians and clergy of the Pacific – an influential group indeed.

13. I look forward to strengthening the Forum’s partnership with those who have been involved in mobilising the support and involvement of the faith-based communities to take the lead in care and prevention efforts – the World Council of Churches, the Pacific Conference of Churches, the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS UNAIDS and the UNAIDS Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. We at the PIFS look forward to working together with you where we can achieve the vision of our Leaders “…. that all Pacific people live free and worthwhile lives.”