The Power of We: Getting commitment to human rights and HIV in the Commonwealth

October 15, 2012

Posted by Enrique Restoy

Coordinator: Human Rights Advocacy and Campaigns

We often hear that HIV activism is dead. But a recent example where the International HIV/AIDS Alliance joined forces with other campaigning organisations and partners across the world demonstrated just what the Power of We can achieve in the fight to keep human rights at the top of national and international agendas. To find out more, read on….

The Commonwealth is currently in the process of a much needed reform process if it is to stay relevant and uphold its values. Last October in Perth, as advised by a special Eminent Persons Group (EPG), a number of recommendations were passed at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting as part of the reform process.

With one notable exception due to it being too controversial for some governments to consider. Recommendation 60 which advocates repealing discriminatory laws that undermine the global response to HIV is critical if we are to make serious headway tackling the HIV epidemic. Over 25 million people live with HIV in the Commonwealth, yet in many Commonwealth countries there are still laws that criminalise people living with HIV, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender women and other at risk groups.  Criminalisation of homosexuality is currently in place in at least 41 of the 54 Commonwealth member states.

These laws are a serious breach of the human rights of these communities and hamper the effectiveness of the HIV response and it has long been part of the Alliance’s campaigning work to get them reviewed.

After intense lobbying by the Alliance and others for fear that Recommendation 60 would be dropped all together from discussions at the Commonwealth Ministers of Foreign Affairs meeting last month, we learned in July with dismay that the Ministerial Task Force was going to seek “further guidance from governments” rather than moving to recommend the passing of Recommendation 60.

We needed to mobilise fast and raise the profile of the September meeting as much as possible so as to avoid going backwards on legal reform.

Through the Alliance’s What’s Preventing Prevention? Campaign, over 18,000 letters and emails were sent to ministers putting unprecedented pressure on the Commonwealth and its institutions. In the UK, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Peter Tatchell Foundation and their supporters all got behind the campaign.

But we were not going to succeed without the voices of those most affected by the discriminatory legislation, the voices of those from across the Commonwealth. The participation of our Linking Organisations in Commonwealth countries, including KANCO in Kenya, NELA in Nigeria, MAC in Malaysia, BONELA in Botswana, and Alliance India, Uganda, and Zambia, proved to be a turning point in mobilising support and public opinion.

In July a groundbreaking report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law came at an extremely timely moment to add to the overwhelming body of evidence of the damage being done by criminalising legislation to the HIV response in many Commonwealth countries. Prasada Rao, one of its Commissioners and an Alliance trustee, lent his support to the campaign by writing a hard-hitting blog for The New Statesman questioning whether the Commonwealth was ready for an AIDS-free generation.

Just two weeks ago, we learned that the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers approved Recommendation 60. The Power of We had succeeded!

A letter to the Alliance from the Commonwealth Secretariat last week read: “I hope you will be pleased to know that Ministers have now collectively commended this recommendation to Commonwealth Heads of Government for adoption by them before the end of this year.”

And we were indeed. But we are not resting on our laurels: this success will only be confirmed once these laws are effectively repealed once and for all in all Commonwealth countries. Only then will our work here be done.

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