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Turning the tide together on HIV – a human rights imperative

The world’s collective response to HIV three decades ago can be summed up in one word: shameful. At worst, people living with HIV were, inexplicably, chained to their beds, detained, turned away from medical facilities, criminalised and deported. At best, they lost their jobs, were kicked out of schools and denied access to basic services. We responded to a virus by humiliating, stigmatising and punishing those infected. Our response to the virus was as painful, and sometimes as deadly as the virus itself.

Fortunately, impressive strides have since been made in the fight against HIV. In the last few years, major scientific advances have occurred and the number of new HIV infections, particularly among children, has been slowly declining, fewer people are dying from AIDS-related causes, nearly half of those people eligible for antiretroviral treatment, including in low- and middle-income countries, are now receiving it, and treatment has become the new engine for prevention. HIV is no longer the certain death sentence it once was.

And yet, the stigma and discrimination faced by HIV-positive people remains high, in every region of the world. Even today, we continue to focus on punitive approaches to HIV such as the criminalisation of HIV transmission, non-disclosure and exposure. Entry restrictions against and deportation of HIV-positive non-nationals at borders are still far too common, particularly in the more affluent countries. The most vulnerable communities, the ones that least enjoy their fundamental human rights, also remain disproportionately more vulnerable to HIV infection – and this is no coincidence.

The face of HIV has always been the face of our failure to protect human rights. One of the key drivers of AIDS has always been, and remains, this failure to ensure human rights protection for marginalised communities, including prisoners, sex workers, drug users, people with disabilities and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Homophobia, gender discrimination, racial profiling and violence against women have further impeded efforts to effectively manage and contain the spread of HIV.

The theme of this year’s International AIDS Conference, which is being held in Washington DC later this month (July) is Turning the Tide Together.  It is indeed now time to turn the tide. The human rights violations that have characterised the spread of HIV – and in many cases also the fight against HIV – must be curbed. It is time to build on the gains of the past few years to create a sustainable global response to an epidemic that still challenges us. Taking a human rights perspective on the issue is essential.

By Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the International AIDS Conference 2012

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