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Few issues deserve more attention than the scourge of HIV-AIDS. Regrettably, Stephen Harper passed up a golden opportunity this week to educate Canadians about the dangers at home and abroad. In deciding not to attend the 16th International AIDS Conference being held in Toronto, the Prime Minister also missed a chance to display his often-hidden compassionate side.

Forty million people worldwide are living with HIV-AIDS. The disease is crippling sub-Saharan Africa, and concern is emerging about epidemics in Russia, India and China. In Canada, one-third of all new HIV infections occur in aboriginal populations. Thousands of conference delegates are discussing profound issues of access to treatment. They rightly expected Mr. Harper, as political leader of the host country -- one of tremendous wealth and prestige -- to likewise participate or, at the very least, to welcome and wish them well.

Canadians are engaged in all the struggles of the world around them, not just the military ones. By playing against type, Mr. Harper could have lit up the room. Instead, he is being roundly roasted. "I think part of the problem is that he's ignorant about the issue," said Laurie Edmiston of the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. "Mr. Harper, you have made a mistake that puts you on the wrong side of history," said Mark Wainberg, conference co-chair and director of the McGill University AIDS Centre. "It's a lost opportunity to tell the world how Canada feels about this pandemic," said Stephen Lewis, United Nations special envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa.

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Dr. Wainberg and Mr. Lewis said Mr. Harper snubbed the conference because he feared being heckled for his opposition to same-sex marriage. In a sense, you can't blame any politician for avoiding a chorus of boos. The delegates to the AIDS conference are not a restrained lot. But Mr. Harper represents Canada to the world; his job is to be in the forefront, not in a safe house.

Mr. Lewis said that Mr. Harper made a "dreadful mistake in political judgment." However, it is not too late for the Prime Minister to see the error of his ways and ask to speak, say, at the conference closing. Surely, he would be welcome.

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