Omar Valdimarsson and Herniwaty Husni in Manila
A myriad of colours and music set the tone for the formal opening of the 6th Regional Asia-Pacific Red Cross Red Crescent Conference, which brings together some 150 delegates from 46 National Societies in the region and another 100 representatives from sister societies around the world.
At a press conference preceding the official opening, the Federation's President, Mr. Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro recalled that the National Societies represented at the conference had nearly 70 million volunteers and members.
"Working at grassroots level, they have a crucial role in tackling the challenges before us as they work with local authorities and other organizations. They can and do make a difference," he said.
"The conference will seek to concretely address these issues with a plan of action that will commit the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the region to make a lasting contribution to human dignity," the president added.
His message was reiterated at the official opening of the conference, where he was joined by Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, chair of the International Movement's Standing Commission, and Professor Jacques Forster, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"What we talk about can only succeed through the humanitarian commitment of volunteers from our National Societies," said Suárez del Toro. "This meeting represents them, and therefore we must find a new formula to allow them to play a bigger role, both in volunteer action and in decision-making at National Society level."
Forster urged delegates to build on existing strategies: "Let us consolidate recent initiatives and thus contribute to prepare a major event: the 28th International Conference, which will take place exactly one year from now under the motto 'Protecting Human Dignity'. It is indeed a very good omen that this regional conference should have 'Uniting for Human Dignity' as its motto," he said.
The three main themes of the conference are HIV/AIDS, Disaster Management and Population Movement. On this last issue, Princess Margriet reminded delegates that they had not come to Manila to debate why people are moving, but to discuss "ways and means to protect them, to assist them, to ensure their human dignity and human rights".
Before the opening ceremony, the Dutch princess unveiled the conference exhibition, which has posters, photographs and other information regarding the work of National Societies in the fields of migration, HIV/AIDS and disaster management.
In addition there is a photograph exhibition, Positive Lives, at the Manila Hotel which portrays the personal stories of men, women and children living with or affected by HIV/AIDS worldwide.
After the opening the ceremony, conference delegates were invited to lunch with Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at the Malacanang Palace. They were told to keep up the good work. "you are doing a great job," she told them.
President Arroyo called on the Red Cross Red Crescent to focus on issues related to conflict and terrorism in their action and advocacy work.
"One of these is an active campaign – I hope – against the recruitment of children and minors in combat," the President said, noting that just a week ago she had attended a surrender ceremony of former communist rebels where she saw with her own eyes how youths were recruited at an early age to wage war against the government.
"I ask for your support and cooperation in facing this serious challenge to the community of civilized nations," she said.
Health issues were the main topic during Monday's deliberations, not least the ever-growing HIV/AIDS epidemic - the region's most pressing public health challenge.
"Social evils" campaigns and discriminatory attitudes in many Asian countries have led to people with HIV or at high risk being singled out as deserving punishment. This approach is fuelling the epidemic and driving the unsafe practices of injecting drug-users underground.
More than seven million people in the Asia-Pacific region are HIV positive and millions more are at risk. Every day, nearly 1,200 people in the region die of AIDS-related infections and diseases and 2,658 people become infected.
In December this year, some 80,000 people across the region will become HIV infected. India, for instance, has four million HIV-positive people – and every increase of one per cent equates to one million new cases. China could have up to 20 million HIV-positive people by 2010.
Most Red Cross Red Crescent Societies in Asia-Pacific are involved in HIV/AIDS work to varying degrees, through prevention and care programmes, such as youth peer education, information and advocacy campaigns, blood donor recruitment and home-based care. A major component of all the Red Cross/Red Crescent work is battling discrimination and the stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDS.
"Asia is likely to suffer the next big wave of the pandemic," says Suárez del Toro. "Unless we act now, the region will experience the same socio-economic devastation we have seen elsewhere, where family structures breaks down, the number of orphans rises dramatically and where development is put back by decades."
The 6th Asia-Pacific Regional Red Cross & Red Crescent Conference ends on Thursday with the adoption of the Manila Action Plan 2002. This document will complement the outcomes of other regional Red Cross Red Crescent conferences being held this year and next, in time for the 14th General Assembly of the International Federation next November.
26/11/2002 - Bulletin No. 2
25/11/2002 - Bulletin No. 1
Press release: 25/11/2002 - Red Cross Red Crescent calls for greater ratification of migrant and refugee conventions
Press release: 22/11/2002 - Red Cross Red Crescent conference to address Asia Pacific's major challenges
News story: 22/11/02 2002 - HIV/AIDS and population movements top Manila agenda
VIth Asia and Pacific Regional Conference of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies