Civil society speaks out at UN in advance of AIDS high-level meeting

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon addresses a civil society hearing in advance of the June high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS.

“This year is a moment of truth in the global AIDS response…  We are on the brink of real success but funding has flat-lined,” said United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Friday at an informational interactive hearing for members of civil society in advance of the High-Level Meeting (HLM) on HIV/AIDS, set to take place in New York City June 8-10.

“HIV continues to spread – five people are infected every minute of every day,” Ki-moon said, reflecting on the last high-level meeting on AIDS in 2001, where targets such as universal access to treatment for all HIV-infected persons and the virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission by 2010 were declared. “The targets we set in 2001 remain valid but the deadlines we set for meeting them have passed.”

Ki-moon outlined bold new targets for global AIDS by 2015 in a report released last week, setting a framework for the new declaration that will be issued at the June meeting. UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe announced the advancement of a key component of the report, achieving the virtual elimination of mother-to-child HIV transmission by 2015 via the formation of a new global task team set to launch at the HLM. The other goals in the secretary-general’s report included cutting sexual transmission of HIV in half; providing treatment for 13 million people with HIV; cutting in half number of TB deaths of people living with HIV; supporting orphans; and cutting in half the number of countries with HIV related restrictions on entry, stay or residence.

Ki-moon echoed concerns addressed by UN General Assembly President Joseph Deiss in the hearing’s opening remarks. Deiss noted that while advances have been made toward the goals set in 2001 – such as a drop in new HIV infections by nearly 20 percent worldwide, and a 10-fold increase in the number of people with access to HIV medicine in the past five years – “it is time to hold ourselves accountable to our own commitments,” Deiss said. “There is no room for complacency.” 

Repeating the slogan coined by AIDS activists in the early 1980s—“Silence equals death” – Ki-moon concluded his remarks by saying that he was not only asking the civil society representatives gathered at the hearing to act, but that he was “pledging to take action” as well.

The president and the secretary-general both recognized the need to overcome stigma and discrimination; for government, civil society and private sector representatives to join forces; and to incorporate the unique perspectives and experiences of those living with and affected by HIV in order to guide the AIDS response beyond 2011. In a step in that direction, the civil society hearing allowed UN member states to engage civil society representatives in a conversation which will inform discussions at the HLM in June.

Three sets of panelists took the stage to have moderated discussions on the following “key themes:”

  • Enhancing community-level access: Opportunities for healing social and systemic ills;
  • A new generation of national partnerships: Diversity in dialogue; and
  • Synergies among global movements: Opportunities for shared action.

Panel participants and invited civil society attendees came from HIV-affected nations and populations from around the world, including representatives of the disabled, transgendered, injection drug users, and sex workers. “This is a unique opportunity for member states to learn from the people who are living the epidemic and provoking real change,” said Kate Thomson, head of Civil Society Partnerships at UNAIDS, in a news story prior to the hearing.

Global AIDS Ambassador Eric Goosby, MD, participated in the first panel and was asked for suggestions for getting funding to community organizations, which he called a challenge. “That is money well-spent because it is the leverage that keeps the program responding to the changing needs of the population. Community engagement/dialogue does it better than any government ever will,” he said.

“The only way we’re going to move toward adequate funding… is to develop a message that challenges countries that can give more to give more, and countries that are heavily impacted to give more,” Goosby said. “There needs to be an expectation of rational sharing of resources as they converge on the ground. We have to be aggressive at that and the only way that is going to happen is if civil society demands it.”

Civil society speaker after speaker—on the panels and from the floor—reiterated a set of key demands for inclusion in the United Nations declaration that will emerge from the June HLM: a firm and robust treatment target; access to prevention, treatment and human rights protections for marginalized populations including injection drug users, sex workers, men who have sex with men and other sexual minority populations, youth, prisoners and migrant populations; continued commitment to care and support, including services to orphans and empowerment of women and girls; and integration of HIV with other vital health and social services, including TB and hepatitis treatment.

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