Youth Leaders Protest in General Assembly

Throughout the past three days, youth members of civil society have traveled a rollercoaster of emotional and political turbulence, as moments of exasperation and elation, gratitude and outrage flowed throughout continued civil society meetings. Following on the high hopes that many carried in from the youth summit, the present (and likely final) version of the declaration, though it includes positive language on youth—thanks in large part to the demands and pressure of youth advocacy—remains a disappointingly watered down document. Youth and civil society at large have expressed a variety of grievances towards the meeting, ranging from the impotency of institutional process through to the lack of access for civil society to actual negotiations. Influential member states, such as the United States, the Organization of Islamic Conference, and the African block (excluding Nigeria) were lambasted for their continued refusal to include specific disproportionately affected groups such as men who have sex with men, sex workers, and intravenous drug users. Other blocks, such as the Rio group of Latin American and Caribbean states, and progressive-minded states such as Canada and Norway were applauded for putting forward critical language.

In my dealings with the Australian mission, I was pleased to find that my government has been focused on putting concrete targets and monitoring and evaluation into the declaration. The climate of crisis reached a head at a civil society meeting last night, shortly before a large official concert event: “An Evening of Remembrance and Hope” was to take place. Infuriated and frustrated at what was seen as zero progress, or in some eyes, a step backwards by the declaration drafts coming out of negotiations, civil society decided that a symbolic action of dissent was required.

After debating a variety of possible actions, it was decided that at a specific moment, all of civil society would stand collectively and declare their specific demands for language to be included in the declaration. The event itself—held in the General Assembly–was a gala, celebratory occasion during which young African children pulled on heartstrings, Richard Gere looked pretty, and most importantly, Kofi Annan, the UN moral authority, called for inclusion of specific at-risk groups from the official delegations standing before him.

One of the speakers, a Ugandan activist who civil society had earlier corresponded with, attached “the watered-down declaration” whilst calling for “specific set targets,” to which governments would be held accountable. As the applause began to die down, approximately 60 civil society members representing the needs and sentiments of the professionals working on the ground across the globe as well as the people living with and dying from the epidemic, stepped out of their seats to shout in unison: “The Declaration must include: Treatment, Targets, Women and Girls, Harm Reduction, Vulnerable Groups, Now!” Led by two youth advocates, a tall redheaded woman and an Asian man, they began to march through the aisles in collective chorus, much to the surprise of the official delegates who filled the cavernous hall.

As security guards surrounded and led them out of the hall, the diverse group shouted the refrain: “Silence equals Death!,” repeating the particular phrase used by Kofi Annan earlier in the event. Outside in the hall, after a raucous version of the “Amandla” chant, led by Sipho from the Treatment Action Campaign, security guards were bullish and irritable. They demanded UN passes and attempted to herd civil society out of the building. In a flurry of quick thinking and calm responsiveness, members of the group called UNAIDS colleagues as others gathered the group in a tight huddle, interlocking arms to prevent security from wresting the group into segments. As guards began to don white gloves, which from my own experience, are a protocol for forced removal, a UN official raced out of the Hall and demanded that civil society be released immediately, along with their passes. Cheers of jubilation rang out, from the songbird cries of South African women to the pat-on-the-back, normally-reserved grins of the UK and EU representatives. This afternoon, as the political declaration is finalized, with some admittedly positive developments but largely as a weakened, disappointing document which will not support efforts to push accountability upon government responses to the epidemic, civil society plans on issuing a press release and its own declaration.)

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