When Stephen Lewis, who was then the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, ended his address to 2006 International AIDS Conference with a call for his successor to be an African woman, cheers erupted across the packed hall. It was past time for those who knew the epidemic best and had borne the greatest brunt of it to represent the efforts to confront it, many felt. And as Lewis puts it now, “Africa is a continent filled with tremendously impressive women,” many of whom live with the virus, and many who worked on a community level to respond to the epidemic.
All of which makes recent events surrounding the passage a new anti-homosexuality law in Uganda, the country where the current UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa serves as a senior advisor to President Yoweri Museveni, who signed the law, a matter of particular disappointment to Lewis. Lewis now is co-director of the AIDS-free World advocacy organization from where last week, Lewis and his fellow co-director Paula Donovan signed a strongly worded open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In the letter, they urge that current envoy Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe be recalled because her abililty to speak to the issues affecting the epidemic has been compromised by her government ties.
The new law, which Museveni considered for nearly two months before signing, targets gay people and those offering them support with lengthy prison sentences, including life in prison for “aggravated homosexuality,” a “crime” that includes having HIV. Ugandans, and world leaders have spoken out against the destructive impact the law will have not only on the rights, dignity and freedom of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people living in Uganda, but on the devastating setback it will deal to efforts to fight the nation’s HIV epidemic, one of the few in Africa that continues to grow. Yet, Lewis and Donovan’s letter says, “amidst the chorus of condemnation, and in the face of the profound damage this law will cause to HIV service provision throughout Uganda and the continent, Ms. Wandira-Kazibwe lurked in the shadows, never using the public platform given her by the United Nations.”
In response, some have defended Wandira-Kazibwe, pointing out that she added her signature to a letter from physicians, scientists and scholars that both addressed Museveni’s questions about homosexuality and reiterated the threat the law poses to public health.
In an interview with Science Speaks, Lewis, in turn, said that signing a letter is a small gesture, with relatively little impact, compared to the potential the Special Envoy post offers to elucidate issues and amplify pressure through press conferences and meetings. But, he added, the problem prompting the letter was not Kazibwe’s performance but the conflicted interests of her positions and the constraints they put on her performance that he says, were demonstrated in the course of the law’s passage.
“It’s not only against UN rules, it’s against common sense to appoint someone who holds a senior position in the government to a position of special envoy,” he said. “She can’t criticize her government, and she’s not in a position to criticize other governments.”
The result, he said, is a performance that “is compromised from the outset,” from taking a stance against “a heinous piece of legislation.”