Hon. Francesca Semoso, Deputy Speaker of the Bougainville Legislative Assembly and Hon John Tangi, Leader of the House from the Parliament of Cook Islands launched a major new publication - "Taking Action Against HIV: A Handbook for Parliamentarians" - in Solomon Islands last week.

The launching was on the last day of the 2008 Conference of the Pacific Parliamentary Assembly on Population and Development (PPAPD), hosted in Honiara.

The PPAPD, which for the first time is being run back-to-back with the Forum for Presiding Officers and Clerks Conference, brings together Speakers and Clerks from Pacific legislatures to discuss priority population and development issues for Pacific island countries.

The new Handbook aims to provide parliamentarians with the information they need in order to initiate and provide a rights-based HIV response to achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for all.

"As parliamentarians, we have the authority to call for change - we can talk about issues that matter - we can lead by example. Responding to HIV requires commitment, boldness and pragmatism. It also requires courage because it forces us to deal with sensitive issues, particularly for us in the Pacific. It forces us to look at the status of women, at the status of our youth, at the status of people who have different sexualities, at drug use, at human trafficking, at child abuse and sex work," Hon Semoso said.

HIV and AIDS has been reported in almost all Pacific countries and its impacts are increasingly visible. Between 2006 and last year, the number of new infections doubled - from 7,000 cases a year to 14,000. HIV/AIDS can reverse hard won development gains, destroy human capital, reduce life expectancy and greatly damage the social fabric of Pacific communities.

"As elected leaders, we parliamentarians have both the mandate and the public trust to debate these sensitive issues. We need to look at the role that culture and tradition can play in making us either more resilient or more susceptible to this reckless virus," Hon Semoso acknowledged.

The Handbook is the fruit of a long standing collaboration between three international organizations - the Inter-Parliamentary Union, UNAIDS and UNDP.

Garry Wiseman, the Manager of the UNDP Pacific Centre said he hoped the publication would be an important tool for legislators in the region.

"The Handbook recognizes the importance of leadership and specifically acknowledges the contribution made by the PPAPD meeting in Fiji which produced the 2004 Suva Declaration on HIV/AIDS," said Mr. Wiseman.

Earlier in proceedings, the Conference endorsed Hon Semoso and Hon Tangi as "PPAPD-FPOC Champions" for HIV/AIDS advocacy work in the Pacific region and internationally. Hon Tangi was formerly a Youth Development Officer at the Secretariat for the Pacific Community, working across the countries of the region.

"It is very encouraging that the choice of the champions - representing both the Eastern and Western Pacific - embraces all Pacific Islands nations. I believe that a champion should be seen in the context of a "servant" - a servant to this cause and to the people. I would like to use this position to call for the co-operation of all sectors of society, in particular, in my own role as a Pastor, recognizing the importance of the churches. This Handbook, and the Report of the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation which was also launched today, will be very important resources which will assist the work of legislators and policy makers in the Pacific," said Hon Tangi.

The final Outcomes Statement from the 2008 PPAPD Conference specifically recognized the important role of Pacific legislators in dealing with HIV and AIDS. Members as of PPAPD encouraged Governments and legislatures to act to protect the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS, including by enacting and/or amending relevant legislation.

In looking to the future, meeting recognized that Presiding Officers and legislators themselves should act as national champions in tackling HIV and AIDS and show leadership to their communities, including by encouraging voluntary HIV and AIDS testing.

Press Release (Joint UNDP Pacific Centre and PPAPD-FPOC Secretariat)