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Defensiveness and diplomacy at homophobic conference

Tue 4 Jul 2006 In: HIV

Rachael Le Mesurier, executive director of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, reports on the remarkably homophobic 2006 UNGASS meeting on HIV/AIDS in New York. In late March, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation was invited to join the New Zealand government's delegation to UNGASS (United Nations General Assembly Special Session) on global responses to the HIV and AIDS pandemic. The Session was to last a week, from May 31st to June 2, 2006. Five years ago, UN member nations had signed up to a Declaration of Commitment on HIV and AIDS. The purpose of this year's meeting was to see how well each country had measured up to their obligations. The reality, sadly, was far different. From an NZAF perspective, the outcome of UNGASS was less a review of progress and more of a week-long defence mechanism, as some nations fought to “re-litigate” key statements made in the original 2001 Declaration. It was particularly fascinating to see the Islamic block of the Middle East, the Vatican and the United States act together in opposition to key principles of evidence-based HIV and AIDS prevention work. The fruits of their labours contributed to the inability of the UN General Assembly to support an explicit reference to men who have sex with men, sex workers and injecting drug users in the body of the 2006 Declaration. It was said by some that objections to mentioning these groups were based around an idea that including them would somehow be an “endorsement” of their behaviour. There was even debate over whether the Declaration should make explicit references to condoms, and whether – in relation to injecting drug use – sterile needles and harm minimisation should be included. Thankfully, reason prevailed in these areas and the final Declaration did include these references. Not that the process of drafting the 2006 Declaration was plain sailing, though. It was clear to civil society groups that the way in which comments had been gathered for the draft declaration prior to the conference was problematic. Once in New York, country representatives were misled by co-chairs as to when additional input was possible. It was clear that New Zealand stood with Canada, the UK, Australia and the European Union in respect to the need for human rights, frank and honest recognition of the communities at risk and the evidence-based programmes that work. New Zealand also took a more brokering role, assisting with moving what initially seemed like a huge ideological divide. With the principles of the 2001 Declaration under threat, and the very real possibility that they wouldn't be re-affirmed, the hard work of the New Zealand mission to the UN helped ensure that we did not face that eventuality. New Zealand's Minister of Health Pete Hodgson and his key advisers were also open and committed to fair and equal engagement with civil society groups on the delegation. Our views and concerns were not only listened to, but they had influence and most were incorporated into the key statements. In particular, the Minister deserves recognition for choosing to convey a passionate, no-nonsense and frank message to the General Assembly. We were proud that his statement was one of only two that received applause from both country and civil society groups in the audience. UNGASS was also a good opportunity to strengthen ties with our neighbours in the Pacific, built up during last years Pan Pacific AIDS Conference in Auckland. Many HIV/AIDS organizations from the Pacific region were also in attendance, and NZAF was able to discuss issues in respect to the draft declaration and their country's statements. So, where to from here? NZAF would like to see an agreed strategy between government and civil society prior to the next UNGASS meeting on HIV and AIDS in 2008 on how to counter the actions of countries resistant to human rights in the context of this pandemic. We know they will challenge bedrock evidence, so lets plan for it. We'd also like to see at least six months of lead-in time for the production of the next UNGASS report in 2008, to ensure comprehensive involvement of all involved in working on HIV and AIDS in New Zealand. The key challenges for champions of evidence-based HIV prevention like New Zealand in the future will be to ensure that our successes, provided by gay men, our country's most at-risk communities, and people living with HIV are not denied. With 500 people infected with HIV every minute, and 8000 dying per day, the world cannot afford to pander to blinkered sensitivities and cultural norms that support breaches of human rights. Rachael Le Mesurier, NZAF - 4th July 2006    

Credit: Rachael Le Mesurier, NZAF

First published: Tuesday, 4th July 2006 - 12:00pm

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