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Why UNAIDS's 'Bold New Declaration' Is A Travesty

22/06/2016 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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BASEL, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 13: UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe speaks on stage at the UNAIDS Gala during Art Basel 2016 at Design Miami/ Basel on June 13, 2016 in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

I was hoping I would never have to write this. That no one would have to write this, ever. UNAIDS and civil society campaigners have had a special relationship of trust and collaboration. But now that relationship seems to have chipped. Irreparably, even.

Two shockingly contradictory statements have emerged after the adoption of the 2016 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS by Member States of the UN at the recently concluded UN General Assembly Special Session last week.

Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, was quoted in the New York Times saying that he felt "the declaration was something to be proud of".

In sharp contrast, campaigners from across the world have called the Political Declaration a "high-level failure". In a scathing statement issued by the global coalitions of civil society organizations, reflecting their disbelief and anger at the fatal omissions, they further called it "a significant set-back" and a "very weak" declaration.

The point of departure between these extreme viewpoints has been reported by The Guardian:

"UN member states have pledged to end the Aids epidemic by 2030, but campaigners say the strategy adopted by the 193-nation general assembly on Wednesday barely mentions those most at risk of contracting HIV/Aids: men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people and intravenous drug users."

Has UNAIDS been caught napping? It is hard to believe that UNAIDS wasn't in the full know of this disaster before it unfolded.

Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Indonesia, and the Holy See, among others, made sure that the final draft of the declaration was left with the very minimum explicit mention of gay and other men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, sex workers and transgender people. The heart of the HIV response was reduced to just one paragraph in a 26-page document. Member states who were disappointed with this were unable or unwilling to weigh in strongly enough to make the emphasis swing the other way.

Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, explains this away as cultural sensitivities:

"I think anything linked to sexuality is very complex. Is it about taboo? Is it about norms? Is it about the position of people in the society? It's about so many factors, cultural factors, economic factors. That's why AIDS is so complex. It's not easy to deal with a political declaration when you're talking about HIV/AIDS. You're confronting different societies, different opinions."

Even if mild, this is officialese for an admission of defeat.

It was precisely because AIDS is so complex that UNAIDS, a whole new UN entity, was set up 20 years ago with the mandate to work with all other UN agencies and national governments, with a large budget and staff in every country. The mandate of UNAIDS was specifically this -- to set the normative benchmarks, to better understand and convey the complexities of the AIDS epidemic, to navigate the varying opinions and taboos, to champion the rights of marginalized/criminalized groups, and to negotiate with national governments on the basis of evidence with full knowledge of prevailing cultural sensitivities.

Let this setback be a lesson for those who announce premature victory over the AIDS epidemic and roll out headline grabbing, self-congratulatory media campaigns.

Didn't UNAIDS know that the countries mentioned above remain hostile to the mention of gay and other men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, sex workers, transgender people? During the whole protracted process leading up to the adoption of the political declaration, did UNAIDS take civil society into confidence about the possible fallout of these hostilities? What actions did UNAIDS take to prevent the shocking and fatal omissions that transpired finally when the document was adopted by the UN General Assembly?

Has UNAIDS been caught napping? It is hard to believe that UNAIDS wasn't in the full know of this disaster before it unfolded. Has UNAIDS failed in delivering its core mandate?

The International Council of AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO) emphasizes that the civil society organizations who were engaged in the long process leading up to the UNGASS in "good faith" now feels so let down by the "deliberate way" in which the Political Declaration ignored its recommendations that they have since issued a "Civil Society and Communities Declaration to End HIV" as if in defiance.

Activists and campaigners across the world take the Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS very seriously, as they should, because it reflects the intent of the entire global community, all national governments and civil society partners. This document, therefore, assumes the status of a road map for the next five years, its imperfections notwithstanding.

UNAIDS needs to redeem itself and become accountable to the people in whose name it exists.

Campaigners who have walked shoulder to shoulder with UNAIDS through all these years, giving validity and voice to UNAIDS' pronouncements, showing up to buttress every policy process initiated by UNAIDS, feel let down -- and have rejected the Political Declaration, calling it "stained by the absence of attention on gay and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers and transgender people."

Let this setback be a lesson for those who announce premature victory over the AIDS epidemic and roll out headline grabbing, self-congratulatory media campaigns. UNAIDS needs to redeem itself and become accountable to the people in whose name it exists.

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