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AIDS and Human Rights: A Call for Action

The AIDS epidemic is the most devastating crisis in the history of human health. More than 35 million people are living with HIV. 22 million men, women and children have died, and 15,000 people are infected every day.

The AIDS epidemic is the most devastating crisis in the history of human health. More than 35 million people are living with HIV. 22 million men, women and children have died, and 15,000 people are infected every day. If current trends do not change, there will be more than 40 million AIDS orphans in Africa alone by 2010. At current infection rates, a fifteen-year-old boy in Botswana now has an 85 percent chance of dying of AIDS.

But the pandemic represents more than a health catastrophe. It is both a product of, and exacerbated by, pervasive violations of human rights. HIV/AIDS is a preventable and manageable disease that has been turned into a pandemic by ignorance, neglect and violations of human rights. The disease most deeply affects those least able to enjoy their rights: the poorest, the weakest, the least educated, the most stigmatized.


Pervasive discrimination prevents women from protecting themselves from sexual assault or unprotected sex, stigmatizes women who are HIV-positive, thus discouraging them from being tested for the HIV virus, and denies women treatment that is available for the disease or infections associated with it. The second-class status of women in economic, social and civic life has fueled the pandemic in much of the world. Fundamental inequalities between men and women must be addressed as part of the response to the AIDS pandemic. Discrimination also extends to men who are infected so that they, too, are discouraged from testing and seeking treatment. Discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS not only discourages them from seeking testing and treatment, but affects all areas of their lives.


All governments, including those in the developed world, have an obligation to fulfill the right to health to the maximum of their available resources. Governments have been far too slow in fulfilling their obligations to protect the human right to health by planning, funding, and implementing programs to provide comprehensive prevention, treatment and care. Without these programs, millions of people will die. Highly effective treatment and prevention regimes exist to contain HIV/AIDS, but while most people living in rich countries have access to these treatments, the vast majority of those living in poor countries do not.

Donor nations have not fulfilled their obligations to protect the right to health through cooperative, supportive activities, including providing the funds needed for prevention and treatment to save millions of lives. Making prevention and treatment regimes available to all human beings is not a matter of charity. International assistance and cooperation are imperatives of human rights as set out in international human rights law.


Many governments in countries where the population is most at risk have not provided enough appropriate information about HIV/AIDS, nor provided the necessary educational programs to prevent its spread. Violations of the human right to receive information needed to protect one's health, as set forth in international human rights covenants, are pervasive. Consistent and accurate information about reproductive health and prevention of HIV is crucial to stem the spread of the pandemic.


Governments and international institutions have failed to interpret and enforce international trade agreements regarding pharmaceutical patents in a manner that recognizes their provisions for addressing health emergencies, and is in harmony with and reinforces the right to health as guaranteed in international human rights law. It is clear that this health emergency is sufficient in many countries to permit compulsory licensing and allow parallel imports.


We, the undersigned human rights organizations, therefore call on all those facing the pandemic to acknowledge that we are confronting a human rights catastrophe that cannot be solved without a global commitment to human rights:

  • Governments must end entrenched discrimination against women and girls and remove disparities in law, custom, education, and health practice that render them especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Other vulnerable groups that require protection from discrimination include children, men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, injecting drug users, persons confined in institutions and prison populations, refugees and internally displaced persons.
  • Governments must bring an end to discrimination, through both law and custom, against those infected with HIV/AIDS. And governments should protect the right of all persons not to be excluded, abused or stigmatized for their health status.
  • Governments must protect the right of all persons to means of protection against infection. This includes protecting the right and promoting the capacity of all persons to refuse unwanted or unprotected sexual contact.
  • Governments should ensure that information about people's health, sex, HIV/AIDS is provided with complete candor and freely available.
  • Governments of affected countries must commit the maximum available resources to prevention and treatment strategies, including the necessary public health infrastructure, to protect the human rights at stake.
  • Governments should protect the right of all persons to have access to adequate treatment at affordable prices. Under trade agreements, governments and international institutions should permit compulsory licensing and parallel import of needed pharmaceuticals. These bodies should interpret pharmaceutical patent and property laws consistent with the imperative of the right to health-and the right to life.
  • Donor countries should commit themselves to contributions commensurate with their economic resources. According to the UN Secretary General, an adequate response to the global pandemic demands a minimum of $7-10 billion a year. Other reliable estimates are still higher. Annual funding must remain at this level or higher for decades. The United States contribution to the UN Trust Fund, in light of its percentage of the gross domestic product of the developed world, should be at least $2.5 billion a year.
  • Donor nations and international lending organizations should reduce or write off the debt of poor nations insofar as it is devoted to social sector investment, allowing developing nations to devote more resources to their public health needs.

We commit our organizations to use our capabilities of research, advocacy and campaigning, to attack the human rights challenges of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Standing together we can turn a threat which menaces us all into a manageable and preventable disease.

Defending these rights and fighting discrimination in the context of the AIDS pandemic will require an unprecedented mobilization of civic courage, political will and economic resources. But standing up for human rights in this case is as urgent as standing up against torture, political repression and crimes against humanity. If we do not do so, entire generations will die and we will be remembered as those who stood by.

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