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close this bookDiscrimination and HIV/AIDS (To the UN Commission on Human Right) (UNAIDS, 1996, 11 p.)
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View the documentStatement by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)

Statement by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)

Mr Chair,

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS, would like to take this opportunity to introduce itself formally to the Sub-Commission and to address discrimination against people living with HIV, as well as the discrimination that makes certain groups vulnerable to HIV.

UNAIDS became operational on 2 January 1996. It is a co-sponsored programme which brings together UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank in a common effort against the epidemic. It resulted from the conviction among governments, the United Nations system and NGOs that an expanded and fully co-ordinated response was needed to address this epidemic's complexity and magnitude, including the extensive human rights abuses associated with the virus.

The establishment of UNAIDS is clear recognition that HIV/AIDS is not just a global health problem. It is a recognition that socio-economic factors, as well as human rights abuses, are both causes and consequences of this epidemic, its spread and its impact. In these terms, it is no accident that ninety percent of those living with HIV/AIDS can be found in the developing world, and that within every society, rich or poor, it is those who are marginalized and who suffer lack of human rights protection who are the most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Thus, the work of the Sub-Commission, as it focuses on prevention of discrimination and the protection of minorities, is critical to the response to the epidemic.

At last year's session of the Sub-Commission, UNAIDS reported that 15 million adults and children were living with HIV infection, with a further 6000 people being infected every day. One year later, UNAIDS reports that over 21 million adults and children are living with HIV; and some 8,500, including 1000 children, are infected each day. In 1995 alone, 1.3 million people died from AIDS, of which 300,000 were children under the age of 15. With these alarming figures, comes irrational fear, stigma, and discrimination, factors which fuel the spread of the epidemic, and intensify its cruelty for those living with HIV/AIDS.

Since its appearance, HIV/AIDS has pushed, and continues to push, the margins of several traditional human rights issues. It does so urgently. UNAIDS would like to focus on some of these issues, among those you are considering during this session, namely, the human rights of women and others who suffer denial of sexual autonomy; the situation of marginalized groups, such as indigenous peoples; and the freedom of movement of those living with HIV/AIDS.

With regard to women, in Beijing, paragraph 97 of the Platform for Action, elaborated for women the right to control their own sexuality and reproductive health, and to be free from sexual violence and coercion. The controversy over this paragraph is striking evidence of how far we have to go to articulate, promote and implement these aspects of the rights of women - aspects which are essential components of women's rights to liberty, security, privacy and freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment. Whether in its most egregious form, such as rape and the sexual slavery of women and children, or within the context of marriages and relationships to which women and girls have no real alternatives, any coerced sex or sex in which women and girls cannot negotiate the use of condoms increases vulnerability to infection. Thus, HIV/AIDS has made women's' right to sexual self-determination and reproductive health even more a matter of life and death.

Other groups whose sexual self-determination is denied are also profoundly affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These are men and women who practice same-sex sex, and transgendered people. Some 88 countries maintain laws that explicitly prohibit or regulate same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. Many others maintain laws against vaguely defined activities considered "immoral" or "anti-social". In many countries, commercial sex is illegal, yet it is the sex workers, rather than their clients, who are targeted for prosecution. Both those engaging in same-sex activities, and sex workers are frequently suspected of being HIV-positive, leading to their harassment, arrest, detention and mandatory HIV testing.

UNAIDS is well aware that matters of sexuality raise difficult and emotionally charged cultural and religious issues. However, they also raise compelling human rights and public health concerns, both of which are heightened in the context of HIV/AIDS. Globally, the vast majority of transmission of HIV occurs during heterosexual sex. However, a significant proportion occurs during homosexual sex, even in countries where there is no societal recognition of homosexuality. Where same-sex sex is criminalized and sexual minorities stigmatised, these people are either denied access to HIV-related information and education or are driven away from existing programmes. As they are increasingly vulnerable to contracting HIV, the discrimination and stigma they have always faced has become more life-threatening since the advent of HIV/AIDS.

In the Toonan Case, the Human Rights Committee found that laws against homosexual conduct between two consenting adults violated the right to privacy, and that sexual orientation was included in the ground of "sex" in the prohibition against non-discrimination in Article 26 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This is an important step forward in clarifying how sexual self-determination intersects with the rights to privacy, liberty, non-discrimination, and with public health and morals. But given the fact that laws against same-sex activity impede public health efforts to stop HIV transmission and raise profound human rights issues, these issues should be further articulated and addressed by UN human rights bodies on an urgent basis.

Turning to the situation of indigenous peoples, in a number of countries indigenous peoples bear a disproportionate share of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This is not only due to their lack of access to mainstream HIV education and health services, but also due to the fact that these services are often not relevant to nor address the needs of these peoples. Once again HIV/AIDS raises the stakes concerning the rights of indigenous peoples as they seek the right to maintain their cultural identity and heritage. In the context of HIV/AIDS, the enjoyment of their rights to health and life depend in part on their being empowered to develop HIV prevention and support programmes which are effective because they are based on positive cultural, linguistic and social traditions.

Turning to the issue of freedom of movement, over fifty countries maintain some sort of restrictions concerning entry and stay based on HIV status. These provisions affect thousands of people, often forcing them to get tested for HIV and denying their movement or resulting in their deportation, if HIV positive. Most affected are migrant workers, students, asylum-seekers, overseas employees, and AIDS activists.

There is no right of non-nationals to enter or remain in a country. However, restricting freedom of movement based on HIV status alone is discriminatory and cannot be justified on public health grounds. Furthermore, governments who are concerned about economic costs associated with the long-term stay of those affected by HIV-related illness should not single out HIV, as opposed to comparable conditions, and should establish that, in fact, such costs would be incurred by the State. Finally, human rights imperatives, such as a claim to asylum or family reunion, should prevail over economic concerns.

In this statement, UNAIDS has chosen just a few of the many areas where HIV/AIDS is challenging us, in urgent terms, to address some of the most difficult and controversial aspects of the content of human rights protection. UNAIDS is based on the principle of partnership in an expanded response to the epidemic. We turn to the Commission, Sub-Commission and other UN human rights bodies to assist in the task of taking on these difficult issues and elaborating progressive standards.

We also thank the Sub-Commission for its support for the Second International Consultation on Human Rights and HIV/AIDS, organised jointly by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Centre for Human Rights and UNAIDS, and scheduled to be held in Geneva in September. It is intended that the Consultation result in guidelines to States on concrete measures that States can take to address HIV-related human rights violations. Some of these guidelines will involve States moving beyond traditional notions of human rights protection and public health.

But after 15 years of an epidemic that involves sexuality; privacy; the status of men, women and children; and the status of people living with a virus and its health consequences, we have learned that it takes willingness, even audacity, to challenge harmful cultural norms and traditional practices, and deeply-imbedded prejudices which result in ineffective responses. In the past, these concerns have had certain human rights consequences. Now with HIV/AIDS, the stakes are much higher. It will one of the most powerful positive consequences of this epidemic if it enables us to break down some of the most entrenched barriers to the effective protection of the rights to life, health and dignity.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.