“Over the next five years, we have a window of opportunity to radically change the trajectory of the epidemic and put an end to AIDS forever,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said this week at the opening of a global summit – held only once every five years – geared toward eradicating AIDS.
He’s right—but you won’t see that reflected in the summit’s final report. It only mentions some of the populations most affected by HIV in a whisper, including men who have sex with men, transgender women, people who use drugs, and sex workers.
Yet these groups are some of the most at-risk for contracting HIV and AIDS. In the report’s sole nod to them, it reminds us that sex workers are ten times more likely to acquire HIV than others, people who inject drugs are 24 times more likely, and transgender people are 49 times more likely.
Many of the barriers these populations face to HIV information, testing, treatment, and prevention are erected by governments. Laws that criminalize sex work and same-sex sexual behavior, for example, are not just discriminatory, but impact on public health, increasing HIV risk.
According to activists present during this week’s meeting, representatives from Russia, Poland, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the Holy See did as they have done previously and rejected mention of rights-based measures – such as repealing discriminatory laws – for LGBT people, sex workers, and people who use drugs. This time around, Indonesia joined the chorus—a disturbing reflection of that government’s spate of executions for drug-related offenses, and government-driven anti-LGBT meltdown earlier this year.
The UN General Assembly president admitted that “cultural sensitivities” trumped scientific evidence during the meeting, called the High-Level Meeting to end AIDS. The UNAIDS executive director said anything linked to sexuality is “very complex” because it involves “confronting different societies, different opinions.”
“Despite remarkable progress, if we do not act, there is a danger the epidemic will rebound,” the secretary-general said in his opening remarks. This week’s meeting was a missed opportunity for action, as the right to health, and indeed, the right to life lost ground to bigotry once again.