HIV and the human rights crises among key affected groups

04 August 2014
An HIV ribbon

Returning from the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Ben Simms calls on the UK Government to fully engage in the human rights crises facing those most affected by HIV and AIDS - men who have sex with men, people who use drugs and sex workers - so the UK can help steer the world towards the end of the epidemic.

Ben Simms, Director, STOPAIDS

The murder of 298 passengers on flight MH17 cast a shadow over AIDS 2014 and rightly united conference goers and the world in condemnation of Russia’s role in the tragic loss of life. But the wider world has largely overlooked another group of innocent victims of the Ukraine crisis: the citizens of Crimea who use drugs.

Twenty people have died since Russia occupied the Crimea and cut off – overnight – people’s access to methadone.1 The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, the largest provider of services for people who use drugs in Ukraine, estimates that more than a thousand individuals most at risk of HIV are now affected by the war in the east.

If President Museveni’s anti-homosexuality law in Uganda was a turning point in how the western world responds to the crisis facing those most vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, the crisis unfolding in Ukraine must prove decisive. Ukraine is surely a red line moment for western democracies and UN agencies who advocate that the rights of ‘key populations’ must be upheld if we are to ‘step up the pace’ in responding to HIV and AIDS.2

Or perhaps not.

As a recent report produced by Harm Reduction International, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and International Drug Policy Consortium demonstrates, harm reduction in Ukraine is facing a catastrophic 62% cut in funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria starting January 2015.3 This is driven by a logic, supported by the UK Government, that middle income countries should be left to fend for themselves in responding to HIV and AIDS - regardless of their ability to pay (Ukraine) or their willingness (Russia).4 This is clearly mistaken, a message STOPAIDS is supporting with our recent film focusing on people who use drugs in Moldova.

The UK Government’s role in this is critical. The UK remains the second largest contributor in the response to HIV and AIDS5 and its generous support of the Global Fund gives it a decisive influence on its Board. In Lynne Featherstone, the Department for International Development (DFID) has a Minister who is instinctively attuned to this human rights agenda with a track record in government of making decisions which uphold the rights of the LGBTI community in particular. And yet, DFID did not send a single civil servant to AIDS 2014.

If its staff had been present in Melbourne, they would have heard the stunning speech made by Eliot Albers of INPUD6 in the closing ceremony calling for an end to the war on drugs. They would have heard Bob Geldof speak in praise of the UK Government’s commitment to overseas development and received many compliments for their support of the Global Fund. They would have heard activists from across the globe call for new standards of care and new ambitious targets to ensure people living with HIV have undetectable viral loads as we push towards ending the epidemic. They would have had the opportunity to express, in person, their condolences to the many individuals at the conference who lost friends and colleagues on board flight MH17, and in Crimea.

Like Albers and Geldof, DFID might also have used the conference to tell the world, and countries such as Uganda and Ukraine, that the voice of the UK is resolute. Determined to uphold the rights of criminalised and stigmatised communities. Determined indeed, to protect the investments the British public have made in the global response to HIV and AIDS. They might even have shared the learning from their investments in research and programme delivery with a view to influencing other delegates and countries. None of this happened.

The absence of concerted British leadership and policy engagement at this critical juncture in the response to HIV and AIDS is a profound problem that has implications for the entire response. A gap is opening up between, on the one hand, the positions DFID takes in its position paper on HIV and AIDS7 and on the other, its capacity to deliver on these positions – a gap that has been analysed by STOPAIDS and its members in our recent report.8

The conference is now complete, but in memory of those who have died in Crimea and on MH17, let us use this moment to re-boot British leadership on HIV and AIDS. Let us ensure that, as the world strives to begin the end of the epidemic, the UK fully exerts its authority in the international community, to place the rights of key populations and people living with HIV at the centre of our response to HIV and AIDS.

  • 1. The Guardian (2014, 22 July) 'Australia's success in methadone treatment could guide Russia, UN says'
  • 2. UNAIDS (2014) 'The Gap Report'
  • 3. Harm Reduction International (2014, 20 July) 'Funding crisis for harm reduction'
  • 4. International HIV/AIDS Alliance (2014) ''Fulfilling the promise to 'make AIDS history': Why the UK Government should continue to support the HIV response in middle-income countries'
  • 5. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (2014, 17 July) 'Financing the Response to AIDS in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: International Assistance from Donor Governments in 2013'
  • 6. Ross Albers, E. (2014, 25 July) 'Perspectives from the Community of People who Use Drugs' AIDS 2014
  • 7. DFID (2013) 'Towards Zero Infections - Two Years On A Review of the UK’s Position Paper on HIV in the developing world'
  • 8. STOPAIDS (2014) 'Increasing DFID's Contribution to Addressing HIV Among Key Populations: Review and Recommendations'
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