The United Nations (UN) High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS took place at UN headquarters in New York this week to review progress made in fighting the global AIDS pandemic. The two-day meeting, which brought together members of government and civil society, was punctuated throughout by calls to end stigmatization and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS by expanding rights for “sexual minorities” and “commercial sex workers,” including decriminalization of laws prohibiting sodomy and prostitution.
At the opening panel discussion, a representative from UNAIDS, a joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS, asserted that the international community “must move beyond the classical understanding” to include sexual minorities to reduce the transmission of HIV. Representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) representing sex workers and the gay, lesbian, transgendered and transsexual community pushed for legal recognition, with one stating that “denying aspects relating to gender identity adds to the spread of the infection.” Another NGO representative proclaimed “HIV is a virus, not a moral issue,” and that the UN should “abolish the laws that criminalize HIV transmission.”
While many of the registered civil society participants cheered these demands, several government delegations expressed concerns. The Egyptian delegation cautioned against using new terms that have no international legal basis, such as “sexual minorities,” and stated “that the international community should avoid the imposition of social concepts prevalent in certain countries on others regardless of the fact that each society has its own characteristics and specificities.”
Egypt also stressed “the importance of the faith-based approach in tackling the spread of infection.” Egypt credited its low level of HIV prevalence “mainly to the deeply-rooted cultural and social values that contribute to the control of extramarital relations between men and women according to divine religions.” At another meeting, the Zambian delegation warned against using a “one size fits all approach,” particularly in regards to sex workers and sexual minorities. Zambia reminded participants of the important role and success that religion and faith-based organizations have had in the fight against AIDS. Zambia’s representative stated that religion and faith-based prevention should take the concerns of sexual minorities into account, but urged that religious and moral teachings should not be stigmatized or overshadowed.
Qatar encouraged consideration of the frontline role of the family in caring for those suffering from HIV infection, noting that such a perspective was largely absent from the conference. At the only event which focused on the positive role of the family, Sharon Slater of Family Watch International met with anger and resistance when she drew a distinction between stigmatizing individuals with HIV, which she condemned, and stigmatizing high-risk behavior, such as intravenous drug use and homosexual activity, which significantly contributes to the spread of HIV. In a separate meeting with pro-family representatives, the Ugandan ambassador touted the effectiveness of AIDS reduction programs that emphasized behavioral change, notably abstinence and fidelity, rather than simply relying on condom distribution.
An official chairman’s summary of all the discussions from the 2008 High Level Meeting on AIDS will be released in the coming weeks.