NZ is advocating human rights to fight HIV
By Jay Bennie
29th June 2008 - 05:56 pm
When Cabinet Minister Trevor Mallard recently told nations to get real about their HIV epidemics, he got one of those rare things at the United Nations: a silent, focussed hearing followed by enthusiastic applause.
The crux of Mallard's speech was that nations should follow New Zealand's lead by decriminalising and destigmatising affected groups so that they will come forward and be identified, counted, educated, and supported. No nation can know the true nature of its HIV epidemic if those most affected have to hide or lie about themselves, he told government representatives gathered for the two-yearly UN General Assembly on HIV/AIDS.
Rachael Le Mesurier, Executive Director of the NZ AIDS Foundation, was in the audience as Mallard spoke of the need for pragmatic, evidence-based HIV and AIDS prevention programmes, and the conditions which enable the gathering of reliable information.
"The most crucial part of Trevor Mallard's speech was the focus on the promotion and protection of human rights," Le Mesurier says. "All aspects of increasing access to anti-retrovirals, care, support and prevention have to work through a human rights framework. His speech highlighted how even data collection will be unreliable if people are not safe enough to be honest about how they became infected or how to stay negative."
It was a message many of the assembled national representatives seemed ready to hear. "As there were over 140 countries providing speeches, regrettably many got very little attention and were often talked over. For New Zealand, however, the background murmur died down and the applause, which only a few got, was sustained and emphatic."
Le Mesurier says a group of "like-minded countries," such as Canada, the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands also gave strong speeches in line with New Zealand's strategies. "In fact it was heartening to hear that almost all had the same human rights focus as NZ did - nice too as we were one of the first countries in that group to speak so it appeared like we led the pack!" GayNZ.com understands that the Swedish representative went so far as to make a beeline for Mallard to shake his hand.
Human Rights: a New Zealand export?
The hard work towards the human rights framework underpinning New Zealand's HIV initiatives began 35 years ago, with the formation of Gay Liberation in Auckland. Other organisations formed throughout the country until New Zealand's glbt activists, stridently opposed by bigots and religious conservatives, but supported by fair-minded organisations and individuals, managed to get male homosexual contact decriminalised with the passing of the Homosexual Law reform Bill in 1986. It is worth noting that, although Fran Wilde MP fronted up the political campaign to get Law Reform passed, it was fellow MP Trevor Mallard who was in the background, doing the thankless but vital job of meeting with recalcitrant MPs and working the numbers.
Ironically, New Zealand's burgeoning HIV epidemic amongst gay men lent weight to a similar and successful campaign to outlaw discrimination against many people, including homosexuals and those with illnesses. The Human Rights Act came into being in 1994.
If there is a part of the world that New Zealand is in a position to directly influence and assist, if only due to geographical proximity, it is the Pacific, where legalised human rights and protections have been slower to become enshrined in law, much less in social change.
HIV has already gained a strong foothold in homophobic Papua New Guinea, where the epidemic is characterised as being a heterosexual one. But logic, supported by a recent UN announcement debunking the much trumpeted straight HIV epidemic threat, in most countries at least, points to it being spread in PNG by undercover bisexual and homosexual contact.
Other Pacific nations have yet to feel HIV's full force. But, with only limited resources for prevention and support, it would not take much for countries such as Tonga, Samoa or Fiji to succumb to HIV. Le Mesurier says New Zealand has been active in supporting human rights and HIV organisations across the Pacific. For instance, "the NZAF has been a strong friend of our fellow non-government organisations, working in HIV, human rights and on issues for men who have sex with men, lesbian and transgender people's rights," she says.
"Our Pacific People's Programme shares many networks and ideas with our colleagues in the South Pacific," advises Le Mesurier. The AIDS Foundation hosted both the Pan Pacific Regional HIV/AIDS conference in 2005 and the second Love Life Fono in Auckland last August - which was supported by funding from NZAID so a large number of representatives from around the South pacific could attend.
The NZAF has also supported the Samoan AIDS Foundation since its inception in 2005. "We have provided a seeding grant, hosted their governance board, provided training, and peer support - all at no cost to them or to our focus on the epidemic here in New Zealand," Le Mesurier says, adding that the NZAF is "often asked to provide stronger partnerships with our fellow NGOs."
"It was so good to meet up at the UN with the Pacific country NGOs such as the Fiji AIDS Task force, Pacific Island AIDS Foundation and Samoa AIDS Foundation," says Le Mesurier. "I was so pleased to see that they were all integral members of their countries' delegations."
Optimism tinged with concern
At a global level, Le Mesurier came away from this year's UN meeting with a cautious sense of progress since the last such meeting, two years ago. "Most significantly, the symbolic shift seen in the majority of countries now explicitly naming gay men or men who have sex with men, sex workers and intravenous drug users and with the complete absence of calls for prevention programmes based on sexual abstinence and regular references to condoms."
Two years ago to even name the groups most at risk was deemed too contentious: 'vulnerable communities' was coined as "an annoying euphemism, and condoms barely got a mention in the Political Declaration - once, on page 36 I believe."
As another indicator of progress, this year non-governmental organisations and community groups, 'Civil Society' in UN-speak, had "far more profile and more opportunities to have their message heard by politicians and policy makers."
Le Mesurier says she was heartened to hear about the strong progress in decriminalising homosexuality and pro- human rights moves by some countries, such as El Salvador. But that optimism was tinged with "sadness at hearing about the resurgence of new infections in Uganda, the poster boy for African HIV prevention work in the early 2000s" and "annoyance at some countries' inability to name any group other than orphans."
Grand words spoken by government representatives at forums such as this, Le Mesurier warns, are easy. Nations must be judged on their follow-through and results. "How much of this will be mere 'sales puff?' Many Civil Society organisations were critical of what was being said but not done. As there was no specific declaration from this meeting there was no way to hold those countries to account. The discriminatory ban on people living with HIV and AIDS from travelling for short stay trips to countries like the USA was clearly a major concern, as are the retrogressive steps on harm minimisation policies by some countries."
Clearly there is much work to be done. But, just as clearly, New Zealand remains in the forefront of those nations whose approaches to practical HIV education, based on interlinked government, NGO and community prevention and support initiatives, are an example others could do well to follow.
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