Please note that any views or opinions presented in this blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance
This post is an open letter to the Local Organising Committee of the 10th ICAAP, the Chair of AIDS Society in Asia and the Pacific and the Executive Director of UNAIDS.
As the dust settles on the 10th international conference on HIV & AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP 10) and the landfills and paper recycling plants of South Koreas bustling port of Busan await an onslaught of unused, unread and unwanted (?) IEC materials, toolkits and a plethora of CDs, badges and the like discarded in its aftermath. Like some bizarre tornado of HIV resources spinning wildly out of control and now dissipated into the remnants of an event that have left many questioning, yet again, the relevance, validity and justification for such a ostentatious display of, for the most part, mediocre responses to a virus that continues to challenge, provoke and perplex all of us in the most tantalizing way. Notwithstanding some great interventions in the region and interesting presentations and thought provoking plenaries and the growing might of communities there wasn’t a lot new, was there?
The reality in the big bad world is that for the vast majority the real impact of the HIV virus is that shame, fear, stigma and negative impact it continues to inflict on the most marginalized and unjustly criminalised within our complex and diverse societies in Asia and the Pacific.
ICAAP 10 must surely go down as one of the least inspiring yet paradoxically thought provoking and challenging conferences the region has witnessed.
I cannot help but question and critically examine what I have just experienced and my rational for writing this is to provoke a reflection on what this movement is all about and on what we have created in the process.
A personal perspective
As an invited member of the International Advisory Committee supporting the work of the LOC I know I must take my fair share of blame for the conferences shortcomings. Failing to demand greater transparency on the preparatory work that took place and failing to demand that safeguards were in place to ensure the safety and rights of participants (most importantly local community participants) has to be a non negotiable issue for ALL future conferences including sensitization of local media and broader communities and clear instructions to Ministries of Foreign Affairs to brief them in advance to ensure safe and guaranteed visas and travel in an out of the host country.
In hindsight there were warning signs of troubles ahead during the initial planning meetings earlier this year that could and should have been easily mitigated with better planning. A lack of Korean government commitment and a lack of strategically placed support and guidance from the AIDS Society in Asia and the Pacific (ASAP) who claim to be the custodians of the conference (whatever that actually means) I believe has been a key factor in the shortcomings of this conference.
Consequently I hold myself to task for not having enough balls to demand the conference be put on hold till such time that safeguards could be put in place guaranteeing visa and border access for all, access to methadone for our friends who are on MMT and most importantly an assurance that community protests could take place without fear of reprisals and excessive use of force from law enforcement officers.
The organizers might not have predicted it or for seen the events which took place in the Bexco conference centre but they had an obligation to have a minimum package in place to safeguard participation just as the International AIDS Society demands when reviewing prospective new country locations for the huge money spinner that we have come to know as the International AIDS Conference (don’t take it from me but go read their financial reports running effective conferences can is big business Vienna 2010 cost somewhere in the region of USD23 million!*) .
Busan will remain an enigma for many of us who are now safely back in our own homes. On one hand we have one of the region’s most modern and technologically advanced cities (even your coffee and sandwich comes with its own electronic warning device!). Yet on the other hand we also observed a highly conservative and closed society that seems to have very little regard for freedom of speech¸ human rights and flagrant disregard and outright discrimination for the most vulnerable in the community. The daily conference paper was seriously compromised when content was vetted and censored in light of the protest and arrests.
What needs to change?
So what needs to change? Now is the time for some serious self reflection not only from the organisers, hosts and supporters of ICAAP but also more broadly from the communities who invest time and resources in regional forums such as this. What is needed is a thorough and multi stakeholder review of the core objectives of hosting such large scale conferences.
Undoubtedly there is a huge benefit to communities and donors alike in the networking opportunities that these conferences bring and seeing the bigger regional picture and alignment with our peers to improve a regional response. The relatively small scale of ICAAP and its’ regional focus have always been a key selling point, i.e. more cost effect and more relevant to the cross cutting issues that exist in a rich and diverse region.
However, the Pacific and Papua New Guinea continue to remain unrepresented, underserved and most at risk. Similarly it would seem that yet again women remain far from centre stage when it comes to sessions, presenters, chairs and overall content. The community forum was particularly negligent in this regard.
Sitting on the fence
The words of UNAIDS and its co-sponsors, Getting to Zero campaign: “Zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths” became a mantra that was repeated throughout the conference by our colleagues with UN power. Yet the community came away challenging the sincerity of this rhetoric given UNAIDS’ lack of an immediate written response to the actions of the police. The community was looking to leadership from Michel Sidebe, Executive Director of UNAIDS, to condemn the excessive use of force, arrests and intimidation on peaceful protesters after a tense standoff and scuffles with the authorities following a peaceful march within the conference venue.
The protesters were executing their right to demand access to affordable medicines for all to treat HIV and to put an end to the stigma and discrimination faced by Korean PLWHIV and LGBT and key population communities. Michel himself has repeatedly urged communities to take the lead in spearheading a revolution to address these key issues yet when the barricades go up it seems the very organization that is promoting zero discrimination is perceived rightly or wrongly as sitting on the fence.
No doubt there will be a lot of soul searching in what went wrong and what could have been put in place to mitigate the incident. Other issues, familiar from such large scale events continued to plague ICAAP 10. This included tedious and uninspired speeches at the opening from a plethora of financial backers of the conference (which begs the question just how much does one have to pay to get to make an uninspired, jargon loaded speech?). The exceptions in this instance being the speech by the President of Fiji, a leader showing a real commitment and the two community speakers, a very brave Korean putting his safety and that of his colleagues on the line by outing himself at such a high profile event, and a stirring call to arms from an emerging and powerful advocate in the region.
Its easy to be critical, and you can tell by reading this tirade I am overtly so. Yet in an era of dwindling resources and an epidemic that continues to have a huge impact on the most marginalized it’s time for greater collective accountability and a radical rethink for Bangkok ICAAP 11 if they are to remain credible within the HIV sector.
I plead with the organisers of the next conference to reflect on lessons learnt over the last 20 years of the HIV movement in the region. I urge them to develop a robust and comprehensive strategy for meaningfully engaging all key populations and most at risk communities in the planning and implementing process and urge for us all to hold them accountable and transparent as a part of that process. The need to create space for innovation, constructive dialog and meaningful communications with all stakeholders that is strategic, relevant and thought provoking in the run up to, during and post ICAAP should be non-negotiable.
Despite a very clear and reassuring message from the hosts of the next conference that there is a strong commitment from the government, civil society and Ministry of Health to ensure a successful conference I do hope in the planning for 2013 our Thai hosts will approach the challenges of HIV from a different and, dare I say, a community perspective?
Will drug users find the space they so rightly deserve on the Bangkok podium without fear of recriminations from a government intent on pursuing a renewed war on drugs? A government that continues to show no impact, and further drives the epidemic underground.
My fear is that if not, the tornado of indifference and whirlwind of rhetoric and mediocrity will once again be upon us in two years time.
About the author
Greg is an HIV positive activist with over 20 years experience in the HIV regional movement and has lived in Asia for the last 28 years. International Advisory Committee Member for the 10th ICAAP, APN+ Advisor, ANPUD MSM advisor, Metropolitan Man Initiative advisory board member, advisor to Youth Voices Count a regional young MSM and TG initiative and full time Manager for the KHANA/Alliance Technical Support Hub Southeast Asia based in Phnom Penh Cambodia.