Why Human Rights Must Occupy the Centre of the Global AIDS Response

Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

It is outrageous that, in 2012, when we have everything we need to beat AIDS, we are still fighting prejudice, stigma, and exclusion—not just in homes and in the streets, but also in police stations and in courtrooms. It is my daily reminder that the AIDS response is not just about an epidemic; the AIDS response is, has been, and must be an instrument to fight for social justice. It requires us to confront and overcome the inequalities that wrongly separate people into “deserving” and “undeserving.”

I am convinced that our achievement in reaching more than eight million people with HIV treatment is a massive milestone. However, the next seven million will be an even greater challenge as it will include many who are afraid, isolated and criminalized. They will never come forward if they do not feel safe from discrimination, violence, and punitive laws. In order to reach our target of 15 million people on treatment by 2015, we will have to be much better at addressing legal and social barriers. We will have to invest much more in programs to empower and support human rights. We will have to stand firm for the equal value of every human being no matter his or her social or legal status.

We can do this. We now have many tools to stop not only AIDS, but also injustice. As an example, I refer to the newly released Report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. This document contains strong recommendations that will be viewed as controversial by some, but most of all, it demonstrates again that we cannot and should not shy away from the difficult social, cultural and legal issues that have been exposed by the epidemic.

We will not succeed in our efforts to eliminate new HIV infections among children unless governments do everything needed to end violence against women, including forced sterilization of women living with HIV. We will not reach people with treatment if people living with HIV can be prosecuted. People must realize in 2012 that HIV is a health condition, not a “weapon.” Many countries have. Since 2010, Congo, Denmark, Fiji, Guinea, Guyana, Togo, Senegal and Switzerland have all rejected the overly-broad criminalization of HIV.

Activists and enlightened public leaders are talking about and pushing for a different type of society—one based on inclusion and social justice, not punishment. The dialogue is also opening borders. Though HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay, and residence continue to take away the dignity, dreams, and livelihoods of people living with HIV in some 46 countries, I am heartened that, since 2010, the USA, China, Namibia, Ukraine, Armenia, Fiji and most recently the Republic of Moldova have all removed their restrictions. Every person living with HIV deserves the same freedom of movement as anyone else.

Human rights must remain at the centre of the response. Human rights can transform HIV and societies, if hard work, commitment and funds are behind them. But our common aspiration is clear: a world where no one gets infected with a preventable virus, no one dies of a treatable disease, and no one faces discrimination for a health condition. We have tools to stop HIV transmission, deaths, and discrimination. Human rights demand that we deliver these tools to every community and person affected. By doing so, we help to transform societies into the inclusive places they should be.

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