Human Rights Day and HIV: beyond rhetoric

December 9, 2011

Posted by Enrique Restoy

Coordinator: Human Rights Advocacy and Campaigns

US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, addressed representatives of world governments a few days ago in Geneva with remarks in recognition of Human Rights Day. She focused her speech on the protection the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, as one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time.

“How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?” Clinton said. “This challenge applies to all of us as we reflect upon deeply held beliefs, as we work to embrace tolerance and respect for the dignity of all persons.” You can read or watch Clinton’s full speech here.

Her speech echoes (almost word for word) remarks that a Sudanese Islamic Scholar made just last week in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was taking part in a workshop organized by the  Alliance and UNAIDS for heads of National Aids Commissions and civil society representatives from across the Middle East And North Africa which you can read more about here.

The Alliance-UNAIDS project on rights based national approaches to the HIV response has allowed us to hold rich discussions this year with the people responsible for the national AIDS strategies of over 25 countries. We have heard them talk openly and extensively about the HIV response among people living with HIV, men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who use drugs, sex workers or migrants, populations who are often at higher risk of HIV and subject to human rights violations.

Going beyond ‘unhelpful rhetoric’

In our discussions, heads of National AIDS Commissions have repeatedly expressed a common concern: how can we practically advance the response to HIV among these populations?  They have shown a profound desire to go beyond debates about human rights concepts, described by some as “unhelpful rhetoric”, and focus on effective action on the ground.

At the Alliance, we believe that Clinton’s speech is inspiring: it approaches the inherent human rights of the LGBT community head-on, and it appeals to universal notions of humanity and dignity while lending a hand to engage “with those with whom we disagree in the hope of creating greater understanding”.

But we also want to believe that her speech underpins a genuine determination by the US administration to go beyond that “unhelpful rhetoric” and into effectively advancing the rights of sexual minorities and other key populations in the HIV response.

Just two days ago, President Obama issued a Memorandum titled “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons”, which includes very concrete instructions for all US agencies working abroad to promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.

And in August, the United States’ President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief presented its guidance on HIV Prevention among key populations, with a focus on human rights to ensure an effective HIV response and participation of affected populations in the development of programs.

Commitments and declarations

This should have been a fantastic year for advancing the human rights of those at higher risk of HIV or affected by it. In June, UN member states agreed a Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS which will guide the HIV response until 2015. The text committed to  promoting and protecting “all human rights and fundamental freedoms with particular attention to all people vulnerable to and affected by HIV” and for the first time, it mentioned explicitly men who have sex with men, drug users, and sex workers as key populations that most national HIV prevention strategies fail to focus on adequately.

Later on, the UN Human Rights Council passed it’s first ever resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Organization of American States adopted a similar text. The European Parliament resolution had passed a resolution on a rights-based approach to the EU’s response to HIV/AIDS last year.

An end to AIDS within a generation?

All these commitments and declarations coincide in time with a historic scientific breakthrough. This year, for the first time science has told us that it is possible to end AIDS within a generation. But science also warns that ending AIDS will be impossible without focusing efforts on key populations and without placing human rights at the centre of the HIV response.You can find out more in our discussion paper ‘What is the Investment Framework for HIV/AIDS?‘.

And then, just a few days ago, a reminder that all this could have just been simple rhetoric. The Global Fund, a formidable force in advancing the human rights of those most affected by HIV worldwide, providing programmes and a platform for key populations to engage in decisions that affect their lives, cancelled Round 11 of funding for lack of financial support from donors.

A right to life

We hear arguments around the “legitimacy” of this or that human right on a daily basis. But there is a principle at the very heart of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights that every single one of us embraces wholeheartedly: “Everyone has the right to life”.

But the cancellation of Round 11 means that, although anyone already receiving antiretroviral drugs thanks to the Global Fund will hopefully still have access to them, there is at present no funding to support the provision of such life-saving treatment for other people who need it. Until 2014 at least.

For TB and malaria it is starker – there will be no funding for programmes to expand TB treatments and treated bed nets.

It is simple, and it is tragic. For the Alliance and many partners around the world it is time to campaign hard to make sure that the Global Fund has the resources to scale up their programmes in the coming years, to preserve the right to life for thousands of people, to continue advancing human rights. Beyond rhetoric.

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