Watch your language! Reflection on the UN HLM

June 9, 2011

Posted by James Robertson

Country Director, India HIV/AIDS Alliance

James Robertson, Country Director, India HIV/AIDS Alliance is attending the UN High Level on AIDS in New York. He reflects here on the negotiations around language in the political declaration which will be adopted tomorrow.

The political declaration that will emerge later this week from the United Nations High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS will describe agreed global priorities for the response to the epidemic over the next five years or so. At a point when we need to intensify our efforts, increase our investment, ensure accountability and be clear in our objectives, the process has required exceptional diplomatic skill and deft negotiation to ensure an agreement will emerge.

Words are important. To ensure appropriate levels of action, civil society has repeatedly promoted the principle that the political declaration should explicitly name those populations that experience disproportionate vulnerability to HIV: men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people, sex workers, and people who use drugs.

In open sessions, some country representatives have rejected “sex worker” as unacceptable since it dignifies “prostitution” by describing it as “work.” This example illustrates the sometimes wide gap between cultures in how to understand and address the epidemic. Other countries have questioned whether MSM and people who use drugs should be included, often claiming that these are not problem populations for HIV in their countries and perhaps fearing that, if mentioned, their governments will need to act.

While these efforts to exclude specific mention of MSM, people who use drugs, and sex workers from the political declaration have failed, it appears, at the time of writing, that transgender people are not mentioned or singled out for the urgent attention that they need in the global epidemic response.

While diplomats play games with language, they play games with lives. These populations have been neglected for too long and often actively excluded from our collective efforts. We could never afford this oversight, and we still can’t. The political declaration points towards progress, but we still have too much to do.

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