Your excellencies, honourable members of Parliaments, honourable ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
First, let me express my appreciation to the organizers of this session, the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD) and UNAIDS for giving me the opportunity to address this important forum. I am honoured to be with you today, and I would like to begin by paying tribute to all parliamentarians who have used their platform of leadership to take on the HIV agenda and hope that your gathering here today will re-energize your efforts and contributions to achieving the goal of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.
On behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights I am participating in this 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific to lend our strongest support to our sister United Nations agencies and partners, and to send a clear message that human rights are vital in the response to HIV. Indeed they are critical if we are to succeed in facing down the challenges presented by HIV. The evidence is clear. Where human rights are neglected, HIV responses have been ineffective. Far too many lives have been lost to AIDS, often as a result of policies and measures that have disregarded the human rights dimensions of the challenge.
HIV and AIDS has become everyone's concern. The numbers speak for themselves. Today, 5 million people are living with the virus in Asia and 74,000 people are infected in the Pacific, and the risk of new epidemics developing is a constant threat.
HIV is knocking at all our doors and all of us are called to answer. Parliamentarians have a vital role to place in this regard, as agenda-setters, law-makers and representatives of the voting public. Allow me to discuss how that role should be undertaken so as to put human rights at the centre of the HIV response.
The starting point is the international human rights system which defines a State's obligation as a matter of law to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of individuals living within its jurisdiction. These international standards and principles offer a full range of legal freedoms and protections to all people without discrimination including those living with HIV. They also confirm that discrimination based on HIV status must be prohibited. When countries ratify international treaties it is a requirement that they give effect to them in their domestic jurisdictions, and many have done so to strengthen the protection of the rights of people living with HIV.
However, despite good precedents in law and jurisprudence, stigma and discrimination remain among one of the greatest barriers in the fight against AIDS. People living with and affected by HIV continue to languish under a wide array of human rights violations. We must ask ourselves why our societies continue to perpetuate such discrimination despite the stated commitments to the international human rights norms. Members of Parliament must be amongst those who lead such complex and demanding but vital discussions.
Parliamentarians - as law-makers, opinion leaders, decision-makers, resource allocators and individuals with oversight functions - have a critical role to play in meeting the targets that Member States set in the General Assembly Declaration of Commitment and Political Declaration as well as in the Millennium Development Goals.
First, and perhaps most importantly, parliamentarians must use their bully pulpit to break the silence, prejudice and misconceptions that surrounds the epidemic. What you say and how you say it matters greatly. Your advocacy and leadership is critical in embracing and empowering people living with HIV as equal members of our society and in casting a bright light upon the invisible, marginalized sectors of society where the virus thrives.
Second, parliaments must undertake legal reforms. Laws are integral to creating an enabling environment for effective responses to HIV. Laws alone are not enough, but they are absolutely necessary. The General Assembly Declaration of Commitment acknowledges this and has requested governments to enact, strengthen or enforce legislation, regulations and other measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against, and to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people living with HIV and AIDS and members of vulnerable groups. Regrettably, the parliamentary record on effective laws and policies on HIV has been variable. The latest report of the Secretary-General indicates that over sixty per cent of countries have policies that interfere with their ability to provide access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support to vulnerable populations.
By legislative fiat:
- The transmission of HIV has broadly been criminalized;
- HIV positive people have been prevented from travelling to countries for short and/or longer periods of stay;
- Violence against women and gender inequality have not been recognized sufficiently as key factors that fuel the epidemic;
- Punitive laws on sex work, injecting drug use and men who have sex with men have led to little to no access to HIV services;
- Access to sex education for young people has been limited;
- Mandatory testing of some groups without consent in certain situations has been authorized; and
- Access to medicines continues to be unaffordable despite the flexibility built in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS).
All these actions and omissions and many more are an affront to fundamental human rights standards and principles and call for greater care and attention by parliamentarians.
Third, in their role of holding governments accountable to the decisions they make, parliamentarians have a key role to play to improve oversight and consideration given to HIV-related issues. From a human rights perspective, this entails:
- Monitoring the human rights impact of our laws, policies and programmes to ensure that our HIV policy choices do not result in human rights violations; and
- Involving people living with HIV and especially populations vulnerable to HIV in the decisions that affect them.
Finally, while acknowledging the significant financial investment in the AIDS response that has come about due to activism of the highly organized AIDS movement, resource needs in the HIV arena continue to outstrip current funding patterns and the spread of the epidemic. As resource allocators, parliamentarians must ensure that national budgets invest in the HIV response and that together with international sources of funding, resources are allocated in proportion to HIV prevalence rates. The right to health obligation of States requires that health facilities, goods and services are available, accessible, affordable and of good quality including for the poor, vulnerable and marginalized. This means shifting our approach in AIDS financing from generic models of assistance to a greater investment in vulnerable populations and where the epidemic hurts us most.
In sum, parliamentarians must take the lead, in close resonance with the HIV community, to move policies, resolutions, and decisions that have been made about the centrality of human rights in the response to HIV from rhetoric to real action - action that tackles the difficult aspects of the epidemic including embedded issues of discrimination, social exclusion and stigma.
People living with HIV and vulnerable groups most susceptible to infection need parliamentarians on their side, and parliamentarians must heed the call to respond to their needs.
Ladies and gentlemen,
HIV is not just a virus that requires scientific innovation and sound public health approaches, it is also a virus that lives and breeds in human beings. We must fight the virus, by empowering the people whom it has taken as hostage. And empowerment is not just about giving more resources and means. It is, at the core, about enabling individuals to claim their human rights.