MEXICO CITY—Thousands of AIDS activists gathered today for the first ever international rally for human rights and HIV/AIDS, a key event of the XVII International AIDS Conference. The activists called on governments to ensure greater human rights protections for people living with HIV and those most affected by the epidemic, including women, sex workers, prisoners, people who use drugs, and men who have sex with men.
"We need laws and policies that enable and encourage people to access prevention and treatment services, not policies that criminalize people, drive them underground, or block HIV-positive people from entering the country," said Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS. "We need more concrete programs to empower marginalized people to claim their rights. Only then will we overcome the forces of inequality and injustice that drive this epidemic."
At the rally, a coalition of human rights and HIV/AIDS organizations presented Piot and other high-level officials with a declaration that had received resounding support from over 600 organizations in 105 countries. The declaration, "Human Rights and HIV/AIDS: Now More Than Ever," represented the most significant outcry for HIV-related human rights protections ever at an International AIDS Conference. Groups representing human rights, HIV, development, public health, gender, and other issues showed unprecedented solidarity in endorsing the human rights declaration.
"This rally should mark a turning point in the global response to HIV," said Jonathan Cohen, director of the Law and Health Initiative at the Open Society Institute's Public Health Program. "The demand that human rights occupy the center of the HIV response has united activists from all sectors and corners of the world."
The declaration charges that universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care programs will never be achieved without a full range of human rights protections for groups most affected by HIV. Groups such as women and girls, injecting drug users, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and people in prison are the most in need of comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment programs, yet they continue to face discrimination and abuse and are often denied access to lifesaving programs. As a result, HIV continues to spread unchecked in communities worldwide.
"Stigma and discrimination are more devastating than AIDS, and its cost is much higher because it strains social relations and affects the enjoyment of all human rights," said Emilio Alvarez Icaza, President of the Human Rights Commission of the Mexican Federal District.
According to the UNAIDS 2008 report released last week, people who are most at risk for HIV have better access to HIV prevention services in countries that have laws that protect them against discrimination. Yet, one-third of countries have no law or regulation to protect people living with HIV from discrimination, and countries that do have anti-discrimination laws largely fail to enforce them. At the same time, the United Nations estimates that 63 percent of countries still have laws and policies that impede effective HIV services. These include laws against same-sex sexual behavior, sex work, and possession of sterile syringes.
"Human rights should be at the core of everything we do," said Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. "The fight against AIDS and the other major diseases in the developing world is a fight for health and human dignity."
The lack of legal protections for African women, who comprise the majority of infections on the continent worst-affected by HIV, best illustrates the need to combine public health with human rights approaches. Under customary laws throughout Africa, women are denied equal access to divorce, property, and inheritance. In many countries, governments do not aggressively prosecute domestic violence or even recognize the crime of marital rape. This leaves women vulnerable to HIV infection from their spouses and intimate partners. Preventing HIV in these situations is as much a legal challenge as a public health one, experts say.
The rally built on commitments made by governments at a high-level meeting on AIDS held at the United Nations in June. At the meeting, representatives from UN member states and civil society organizations highlighted the need for more effective programming directed to populations that are highly vulnerable to the disease and most in need of human rights protection.
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and now Executive Director of the Ethical Globalization Initiative, headlined the event. Robinson attributed the slow progress against the HIV epidemic to the lack of urgency given to human rights concerns.
"The question we have to ask is, ‘Why have we not made more progress if we know what steps are needed to roll back the tide?’ The answer lies in the lack of demonstrated commitment to secure human rights protection for people living with, affected by, or vulnerable to HIV and AIDS," said Robinson. "Most countries have yet to implement prevention programs for populations most at risk."
In addition to Piot, Robinson, Kazatchkine, Cohen, and Alvarez Icaza, speakers at today's rally included Anand Grover, newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and Director of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS Unit in India; Jeffrey O'Malley, Director of UNDP's HIV/AIDS Group and founder and former Executive Director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance; Nonkosi Khomalo, chairperson of the South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC); Carmen Tarradas, representative of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW); José Gerardo Cabrera Reséndiz, Executive Director of the Mexican Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS; and Craig McClure, Executive Director of the International AIDS Society.