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.