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China: Civil Society Key to Defeating AIDS

International Groups, Global Leaders Press UNAIDS to Convene NGO Meeting

(New York/Toronto) - The United Nations AIDS Program should support Chinese AIDS activists, who face increased government surveillance and intimidation, in their efforts to openly meet and discuss AIDS, human rights and access to legal services, 27 human rights organizations, foundations and AIDS organizations from around the globe said today.

In an open letter to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), leading HIV/AIDS experts and advocates are calling attention to the ongoing crackdown on AIDS activists in China and asking the Chinese government to respect human rights and encourage nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to participate fully in the fight against AIDS. In particular, the letter calls for a special UN conference to address China’s HIV/AIDS challenges.

Those signing the letter include an unprecedented number of Asian AIDS organizations and such notable global figures as former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis and the chair of UNAIDS’ Reference Group on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, Mark Heywood.

Over the past two months, the letter says, the Chinese government has repeatedly harassed AIDS activists and disrupted the efforts of AIDS organizations to operate and hold meetings. Chinese police have forced the cancellation of three separate meetings on HIV/AIDS in the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province and Kaifeng in Henan province, and also closed the offices of an HIV/AIDS support group in Henan.

Chinese government authorities have also singled out individual activists, detaining 80-year-old physician and AIDS activist Dr. Gao Yaojie, the husband-and-wife team of Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, and 2005 Reebok Human Rights Award winner Li Dan.

Dr. Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS, recently acknowledged the importance of civil society groups at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China, stating that no country in the world had successfully defeated AIDS without giving civil society groups the “space to do their work.”

Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS Program of Human Rights Watch, said that UNAIDS’ rhetorical support was not enough. “UNAIDS must act to support not only governments in the fight against AIDS, but also those AIDS activists and organizations who are under fire,” Amon said. “In our letter we are simply asking UNAIDS to convene a meeting of civil society groups in China and ensure their protection.”

Many Chinese AIDS activists fear an increasing crackdown on AIDS groups in the months leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Previous high-profile events in China have led to tight constraints on public dissent and the detention of groups considered “undesirable.”

“The spirit of the Olympic Games is inconsistent with the intimidation of AIDS activists, the shuttering of AIDS NGOs and the harassment of those most at risk,” said Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “UNAIDS must make it clear to the Chinese government that a successful fight against AIDS cannot be sacrificed on the altar of the Olympic Games.”

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