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Statement by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Kyung-wha Kang to the Plenary Address “Inequity, Vulnerability and AIDS”

9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific
11 August 2009 (Bali, Indonesia)

Distinguished delegates,
Members of civil society,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I am very pleased and honored to have this opportunity to address the plenary of the 9th ICAAP on a theme that concisely captures the dynamics of the human rights deficits and abuses that fuel the HIV epidemic.

I would like to begin by paying tribute to the 25 million people who have died from AIDS and to those who have lost loved ones. These lives have been cut far too short by a pandemic that still challenges us.

I would also like to express our solidarity with the people who are currently living with the virus, or who are exposed to it, in large part because too many of our societies continue to discriminate against marginalized groups and relegate them to invisibility, and deprive those who belong to these groups the enjoyment of their fundamental human rights. With their suffering, they have exposed the shallowness of our commitment to equality and non-discrimination, the fundamental principles of the global human rights regime. And by forcing us to throw the light of human rights scrutiny upon the inequalities and prejudices that have kept minorities locked up at the margins of humanity’s collective existence, they have compelled us to break through barriers and bring us a huge step closer to realizing the common standard of achievement that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights spelled out six decades ago - of all rights for all, for each and everyone of humanity.
Ladies and gentlemen,

That human rights is central to an effective HIV response was a theoretical concept not too long ago. Now, it has become a widely accepted premise supported by evidence. Indeed, HIV and AIDS have fed on poverty, inequalities and injustices. The tenaciousness of AIDS stems at least in part from the fact that measures to counter it underestimate and even ignore the human rights context in which it thrives. It is clear that marginalized groups whose human rights are slighted or abused are far more vulnerable to HIV infection and more likely to die from AIDS. To say that human rights are secondary in AIDS response is an irresponsible denial of reality.

A human rights-based approach to HIV brings to the fore the critical protection needs of those most vulnerable to HIV. It helps to devise and sharpen remedial action to reach those who have fallen outside the available safety nets of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, due to neglect, intimidation, prejudice or social stigma. These include women and girls who experience sexual violence, young people who are denied sexuality education and information on HIV, and children who have been orphaned by AIDS. A rights-based approach also offers a protection canvas to people who are at the margins of society due to their sexual orientation or addiction to drugs, or who are held in prisons and other situations of detention and prevented from obtaining HIV services and commodities. This is because human rights are inalienable, and belong to everyone, including those belonging to stigmatized groups. This essential imperative must always be at the core of the HIV response.

In 2001, United Nations Member States agreed that “the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all is essential to reduce vulnerability to HIV. Yet, as of the end of 2008, 63% of countries report laws that create barriers to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for marginalized groups. As many as 59 countries still impose some form of restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV. Such restrictions do not protect public health, but only serve to heighten stigma against people living with HIV. Many countries have adopted broad legislation that impose criminal penalties for people who transmit HIV. There is no evidence that these penalties deter HIV transmission. Instead, they are likely to discourage people from HIV testing and disclosure of status.

A broad range of human rights and human rights principles are at stake in the HIV response. They include:

non-discrimination, equal protection and equality before the law;
right to information and equal access to education;
right to the highest attainable standard of health;
right to privacy and confidentiality;
human rights of women and children, including the right to sexual and reproductive health; and
right to liberty and security of the person.

Placing these human rights considerations at the center of HIV response means ensuring that:

vulnerable and marginalized groups are the focus of the response;
entrenched discrimination, stigma, and social exclusion are squarely addressed in programmatic responses;
the human rights impact of policies and programmes are monitored;
HIV positive people are active participants in the making of the decisions that affect them;
People living with and affected by HIV are treated with dignity and respect that is inherent to all human beings; and
HIV related human rights violations are redressed. The examples are too many: mistreatment and exploitation of sex workers by law enforcement and health officials; the denial of treatment to prisoners; coercive, cruel and inhuman treatment, even torture of drug users; the denial of refugee status to HIV positive asylum seekers; the loss of jobs, entitlement to property and even her children for women due to her perceived or actual HIV status; persecution of sexual minorities. The list of these human rights violations is endless, and they call for honest, transparent and self-critical coming to terms.

This is no easy challenge. There are competing demands on limited resources, and there remain many laws and policies – including in this vast region – not to mention prevailing social mores, which inhibit effective responses.

But that is why it is important that we maintain our commitment beyond the lifespan of this Congress:

We must continue to remind governments of their responsibilities under international human rights law – particularly their legal obligation not to discriminate;
We must continue to explain that human rights is not simply a means of berating those in power, but also a pragmatic tool to assist in ensuring the most effective use of our finite wealth, in such a way so as not to exclude certain groups;
We must continue to speak out – fairly and consistently – for those without a voice;
We must record, and intelligently and firmly address, specific instances in which human rights are violated.
We must extend our efforts to engage a broader array of partners
We must fulfill our right to health obligation by ensuring that HIV-related goods, services and facilities which includes access to antiretroviral treatment, are of good quality, are available, affordable and accessible to all without discrimination.

Finally, whether coming from government, the United Nations and broader the international community, or from civil society we must continue to tackle the silence, prejudices and misconceptions that persist at the centre of HIV.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I came to the Congress thinking that human rights would help the HIV and AIDS community, that human rights is instrumental to the endeavors of all in the AIDS response. And this has been more than validated in all the vibrant discussions unfolding in the halls of the Congress arena. But I have also come to realize that the AIDS endeavors have greatly elevated and energized the human rights discourse, by expanding its horizons and bringing into bold relief the long road that is still ahead of us toward realizing tolerant and just societies where all rights are enjoyed by all in equality and non-discrimination. Indeed, this has been as much a Congress about human rights as it is about AIDS. I am grateful for the experience, and hope that the synergy will continue build beyond the Congress and in our daily endeavors.

Thank you.