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UN Aids summit: Has Africa lost the plot?

By Nonkosi Khumalo

Over the last three months I have attended meeting after meeting to prepare for the UN Summit on HIV/Aids, which will take place from June 8-10 in New York. African civil society met with African policy makers in Windhoek who assured us that they are fighting for a comprehensive response to HIV/Aids. Now that I’m in New York to meet with negotiators from African governments, I’m realising the disconnect between the African capitals and what ministers of health agreed in Windhoek and what is being put forward here in New York.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for 13 million people in need of HIV treatment to be on life-saving antiretroviral therapy (ART) by 2015 — some are calling for 15 million. The secretary-general also called for reducing, by 50%, the sexual transmission of HIV by 2015 and specific interventions for at-risk and vulnerable populations.

But the African group’s proposed amendments to the negotiations so far greatly weaken the proven effective means to reduce new infections, especially among the most-at-risk populations. Suggested amendments call for respect for religion, culture etc. We know that these beliefs, held dearly by some, have had devastating effects on prevention, treatment, care and support, especially for women, young girls, men who have sex with men, gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgendered, intersexed, commercial sex workers and people with disabilities. The proposed language goes so far as to weaken support of gender equality and human rights as universal rights.

Without strong prevention and treatment targets and the means to achieve them, we are actually setting ourselves up for nothing more than another talk shop with little to show for it come 2015. Ignoring the realities of minority and vulnerable groups in order to please some countries is a dangerous game. These are the countries that continue to criminalise HIV transmission, criminalise homosexuality and minimise the role and dignity of women in curbing the spread of HIV.

Human rights remain at the core of the response to HIV. Africa has a responsibility to uphold this as we commit to our response from now until 2015 and beyond. We cannot afford to continue to punish and ignore the key elements of human rights for all Africans, whether living with HIV, homosexual or disabled. We need to create environments that promote health-seeking behaviour rather than drive key populations underground by violating their right to life, healthcare and dignity.

South Africa must use its voice in these negotiations as one of a very few African countries that has a progressive constitution enshrining human rights and which also runs the world’s largest ART programme with 1.3 million people on treatment. We cannot compromise on human rights or on setting new and ambitious targets on prevention and treatment. We must call on the EU and US not to backtrack on their funding commitments as part of global solidarity. The EU and US cannot continue to use trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (Trips) as a negotiating tool; this is dangerous and defeats the purpose of planning and targeting. Africa cannot be expected to trade on human rights for Trips; these are equally important issues on the table. Do not gamble with our lives! Without these tools and the human-rights framework we will be fighting Aids with one arm tied behind our back.

Nonkosi Khumalo is the chairperson of Treatment Action Campaign South Africa.


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  1. Siobhan Siobhan 26 May 2011

    @ “Africa cannot be expected to trade on human rights for Trips; these are equally important issues on the table.”

    There seems also to be a ‘disconnect’ between the demand for the US and EU to fund treatment programmes whilst African governments dis-empower their own people by either refusing to recognise human rights or ‘diverting’ the funds to personal use. If the ANC has its way, information about HIV/AIDS treatment will be classified along with any other politically embarrasing information about any issue that involves ANC cadres not doing the jobs they are appointed to. Culture and religion are an excuse not a reason to marginalise certain populations.


    Yet, because it is Aficans themselves who are betraying their own people “Culture” and “Religion” must be treated like sacred cows by “the West”. Africans are their own worst enemies…

  2. Alastair Grant Alastair Grant 26 May 2011

    Nonkosi – it looks like you’re saying that (many) African leaders are not doing their best to beat AIDS, so donor nations are backing away from the commitments they made to support the African programmes.

    If I’m wrong, please clarify. If I’m right – do you blame them?

    I’ve been working internationally in the AIDS field for 15 years, and there’s a clear distinction between working in Africa and working elsewhere (such as the Caribbean, Central America, South and South-East Asia).

    The difference is that, as activists, we have to drag African leaders, kicking and screaming, to the party, while elsewhere they simply need someone draw the problem to their attention, and to point the way to the solution. Trust me – this is no exaggeration!

    The time is long gone when donor nations owe anything to Africa. Yet, in spite of continually being described as ‘colonists’ and ‘imperialists’, they continue to give their money and their expertise to help Africans.

    The ultimate solution can only lie with the voters of Africa.

    You have no idea how my heart aches for African women, who struggle not only to keep their families fed, clothed and educated, but to moderate the recklessness and downright stupidity of their menfolk.

    But, that said, ultimately the people of Africa get the leaders they deserve. Until they demand more enlightened leadership, western cash can do no more than blunt the consequences of electing arrogant and bigoted men to positions of power.

  3. Siobhan Siobhan 28 May 2011

    @ Alastair Spot on. Well said!

  4. MLH MLH 28 May 2011

    “Without these tools and the human-rights framework we will be fighting Aids with one arm tied behind our back” and into the next century.

    But I’m afraid I agree with Alastair as well.

  5. Judith Taylor Judith Taylor 28 May 2011

    Nonkosi – your points are valid as are those of the two other respondents above. Africa seems to be into self-sabotage and has an absolute regard for patriarchy which then disempowers women completely until this attitude changes nothing else will. And those patriarchs are very good at playing victim of the past. Women arise, you have nothing to lose and perhpas we will gain our freedom and the freedom of others whom these regimes oppress

  6. Graham Johnson Graham Johnson 30 May 2011

    …moderate the recklessness and downright stupidity of their menfolk…

    Alastair, right on the button.

    But unfortunately unsolvable.

  7. Ash Ash 30 May 2011

    And it’s all really just a matter of preventing further infections which isn’t rocket science … stop having unprotected sex and the infection rate will stop. (Except for the currently HIV-positive women who will fall pregnant and have children who will soon become AIDS-orphans or be infected themselves, and that could be drastically reduced.)And our male parliamentarians should speak up LOUDLY in this regard!!

  8. Alastair Grant Alastair Grant 30 May 2011

    @ Graham Johnson

    I wonder if it is unsolvable? Women have the vote in most African countries. If they could only throw off the yoke of centuries and use their votes…

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