AIDS 2012: Finding the substance among too much rhetoric

July 27, 2012

Posted by Javier Hourcade Bellocq

Regional Representative: Latin America and the Caribbean Team

By Javier Hourcade Bellocq for Corresponsales Clave

On Sunday 22 July the XIX International AIDS Conference was inaugurated at a long and tedious event with more rhetoric than commitment.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

An endless succession of repetitive speeches, an abuse of the slogan ‘Turning the Tide Together’ in all its possible variations and a lack of creativity bored the delegates for over two hours.

Those of us who were once in the ‘engine room’ of this mega biennial event know that negotiations on the opening ceremony are no minor issue. Everyone wants to be there and jump onto the ‘bonfire of the vanities’ but once there, they have little to say or add.


What few interesting or stimulating words were said could be lost under the weight of bureaucrats’ monotonous speeches, so in an attempt to get over the hangover from such an overdose of rhetoric here are some excerpts from those people who are of vital importance and consequently say very reasonable things:

“The last time there was a conference in Washington DC was in 1987. Three years later it was held in San Francisco, and in 1992 the Boston event had to be moved to Amsterdam at the last minute. This was because of travel restrictions imposed on people living with HIV,” said Dr. Elly Katabira, International AIDS Society president.

He added “We are here today because the Obama administration lifted this restriction in 2009 and we are back after 22 years. But there are still 46 countries with some kind of restriction on entry, permanence or residency for people living with AIDS.”

Doctor Katabira devoted an important part of his speech to thank the leadership and generosity of the United States for its contributions to programs and services throughout the world. “The generosity of America is in fact a challenge for all of us,” he said.

“Young people must stop being passengers and become drivers, sexual health and reproductive rights are fundamental for everyone. We must prioritize them to make a difference in the life of women and young people”, stated Annah Sango, a young woman from the International Community of Women living with HIV (ICW). “Every two years we meet here and repeat the same things but not much has changed,” added this young activist, who was the only person to point out the ‘elephant in the room’ in her reference to the absence of many sex workers and drug users at the conference.

Co-chair of the conference Diane Havlir had a ‘nerdy’ but no less interesting contribution: “I always say that we can’t deal with what we don’t measure, so I recently worked out the number of HIV viruses that are produced every day throughout the world. There are 10 quadrillion, that’s 10 plus fifteen zeros. And only 25,000 people are participating in this conference. Can you see the challenge we’re facing?”

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said: “Now I want you to close your eyes. Listen to my words. We can stop AIDS. We people here present hear this claim very often. Use condoms and stop AIDS. Give money and stop AIDS. This time it’s different, this time we can, together, put a stop to AIDS”.

Sidibé challenged the audience: “It is a time for social transformation. At present, there are 34 million people living with HIV and many more affected, and they all demand health, justice and dignity. We must deal with the main social causes that put individuals at risk: poverty, gender inequality, homophobia, criminalization and precarious housing. It is outrageous that in 2012, with all the tools to beat the epidemic, we still have to fight against prejudice, stigma, exclusion and criminalization”. Sidibé also acknowledged the financial crisis facing the response to HIV and AIDS and said that he feared for the future of international solidarity.

After nearly four hours of opening ceremony consisting almost entirely of speeches, there was not much more to highlight, and this is perhaps a serious matter. In the abuse of rhetoric there was no shortage of keywords and catchwords with little substance behind them, such as: treatment as prevention, ending the epidemic, the human rights perspective, and the list goes on. This glossary will be repeated over the next five days.

Without commitment behind the rhetoric, it does not look like we will be turning the tide any time soon.

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