The world’s largest gathering on HIV/AIDS will be held in July in Melbourne, Australia. The theme of the 20th International AIDS Conference – also known as AIDS 2014 – is Nobody Left Behind. Organizers have issued the Melbourne Declaration.
Since the AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2000, conference organizers have released declarations several months prior to the event.
Chris Beyrer, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and president-elect of the International AIDS Society, said there are several reasons why declarations are issued.
“Certainly, the first is, as in the case with the Durban Declaration, that there are often compelling issues facing the field and facing everyone living with HIV and people working on HIV, that really demand international attention. So the conference provides a platform, a spotlight on the global epidemic. And so we use the conference declarations to really highlight those issues,” he said.
The Melbourne Declaration affirms that “non-discrimination is fundamental to an evidence-based, rights-based and gender transformative response to HIV and effective public health programs.”
Beyrer sais, “There has been a wave of new anti-gay, discriminatory laws and policies in a number of countries -- the recent laws in Russia --the new laws that were passed in Nigeria in 2013 and in Uganda just recently – which really are a threat to access to care for people living with HIV and for sexual and gender minorities more broadly.”
AIDS 2014 organizers said such laws exist in over 80 countries.
“The motivation for this current declaration is really to say the HIV response has always been about universal access – about non-discrimination and about working with affected people and communities. That’s always been who we are, and that’s why we’ve had the successes that we’ve had. And so, we’re really trying to use the conference to highlight that we see these laws as really a dangerous trend in the wrong direction,” said Beyrer.
Many of the laws against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders have their roots in colonialism. But Beyrer said the new law in Nigeria takes discrimination further.
“It was not illegal, for example, to organize meetings, to have discussions, to do outreach for folks at risk, for gay and other men who have sex with men. The new law criminalizes all those behaviors. So, for example, [it] makes it illegal to organize a public health meeting to discuss these issues. It makes it illegal to do outreach and provide services.”
The effect, he said, is to quickly cut off access to life-saving HIV services.
“Untreated HIV is still fatal. So when you talk about reducing people’s access to care, this is not trivial. This is a life or death matter,” he said.
While the U.S. Great Britain and others have moved toward expanding gays rights, including same sex marriage, some former British colonies are going in the opposite direction. Some of the anti-gay laws have the support of American evangelical groups.
One minister, Scott Lively, has been active in Uganda and Russia, for example. He’s currently being sued in Massachusetts by an American group representing sexual minorities in Uganda. The suit accuses Lively of crimes against humanity. Lively’s attorney said his client’s preaching against homosexuality is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
In 2013, The U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional what’s known as the Anti-Prostitution Pledge as it relates to U.S. NGOs. It required that NGOs receiving federal funds to combat HIV and trafficking adopt a policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. However, the Supreme Court said it violated the First Amendment right of free speech. But, the ruling did not apply to foreign NGOs receiving such funds.
The International AIDS Society President-Elect said many who sell sex do so consensually and consider it their everyday job. They oppose the Anti-Prostitution Pledge. Professor Beyrer said the language surrounding the issue has caused problems.
“We have had some conflation, I think, in language and terminology around, for example, trafficking of persons and sexual exploitation with sex work that, I think, broadly speaking has not been helpful in terms of trying to provide services to people and really understand who is a coerced person who really needs protection? And who is a consenting a consenting adult, who is choosing to sell sex?”
He added that when sexworkers are organized and managers of commercial sex they can actually help control the spread of HIV.
“They do a very good job of promoting condom use -- of STD care and treatment access. And when they’re organized this goes rather well. When you talk to the communities about what it is that they want, they want sex work to be understood as work. They want access to care and services. They want to be able to be organized and they of course want protection from violence, which is a major issue,” he said.
Instead, he said, crackdowns and exploitation drive sexwork underground where protection against HIV is lacking. There’s no indication the Anti-Prostitution Pledge will be repealed by the U.S.
In 2016, the International AIDS Conference returns to Durban, South Africa, where it was last held in 2000. It was the first time the meeting was held in a developing country and the last time it was in Africa. At the time, organizers issued the Durban Declaration, which said HIV caused AIDS. It was aimed at then South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had refused to accept that a virus was the cause of the epidemic.