NOVEMBER 30, 2010: World Aids Day 2010 - 'Universal Access And Human Rights'

World Aids Day 2010 - 'Universal Access And Human Rights'

SOURCE: Commonwealth Information and News Service

Message from Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma

Five years ago at Gleneagles, the countries of the G8 set themselves and the world a target. By this year, they said, 80% of those needing access to HIV prevention, treatment and care, should have it.

As 2010 draws to a close, only 36% of those in developing countries who need HIV treatment have access to it. As for prevention and care, the numbers of the neglected are higher still. And - for all the money pledged and given since 2005 - the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria is still $1.3 billion short of its minimum requirement for the next three years.

It is unfair to say that a promise made has been broken - not least because real progress has been, and is being, made. New HIV infections are down by a third, and there has been a ten-fold increase in anti-retroviral treatment in the last five years. Some vulnerable groups have seen advances in HIV care, such as pregnant women who would otherwise pass on the virus to their children, and also people with tuberculosis.

But a promise has still not been fully honoured, and the cost is measurable in human lives.

The Commonwealth carries much of the HIV burden. In the last year, around 1½ million of its citizens have lost their lives due to AIDS-related illnesses. Two-thirds of those who are HIV-positive today are in the Commonwealth, and in some of our member countries, one in four people carry the virus. Only eight of our developing countries have achieved what we call 'universal' access to anti-retroviral therapy.

So why and how are we failing to help those who most need it?

The answer lies in part, of course, in healthcare and its attendant issues such as human resources, infrastructure, drugs - and money. But it lies also in human rights.

The response of Commonwealth countries to HIV and AIDS is guided both by national laws and policies, and by international law relating to human rights.

In the battle against HIV and AIDS, too many countries across the Commonwealth and the world are marginalising the people who most need their help. These include sex workers, injecting drug users, homosexuals, and - most worryingly of all - women, simply because of their gender. Two-thirds of people living with HIV are women: if women's voices are silenced or their needs not met, then HIV and AIDS cannot be beaten.

If vulnerable groups are frightened or legally barred from coming forward for treatment, then their plight cannot be changed, and their infections will spread. It is punitive laws and their enforcement - coupled with stigmatisation - which makes it more difficult for HIV programmes to reach the most vulnerable people. They, in turn, are then forced to go underground.

That is why the tasks of protecting public health and of defending and promoting human rights are closely related, and mutually supportive.

The Commonwealth is an association which advances human rights. All of its members have committed to human rights and non-discrimination as Commonwealth values and principles, and embraced the charter for human dignity that is the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Yet only five Commonwealth countries have ratified the eight core UN human rights treaties.

All of our member countries are journeying on the democratic path: the vast majority of them are less than 50 years old, and their journeys represent a hard and steep climb.

So when the Commonwealth turns its attention to an individual member country and its human rights, it does so by offering a helping hand, not raising a wagging finger.

It looks for solutions, and has worked with national NGOs, for example, to develop practical campaigns to fight prejudice against those with HIV. A short Commonwealth film about the stigmatisation of an 18-year old HIV-positive girl and her family has been shown on television screens around Africa and the wider world.

In partnership with the International HIV and AIDS Alliance, the Commonwealth has supported an initiative examining legal reform and HIV and AIDS. Research has shown how Law Ministries can support the judiciary - and prosecutors, police and lawyers - to create human rights-based legal frameworks to deal more effectively with HIV. The project has also discussed the need for public education to inform people of their rights.

Ten years ago, world leaders committed themselves to eight ambitious but achievable Millennium Development Goals - among them halving the number of people living in poverty, and stemming the spread of HIV and AIDS. They also promised to provide leadership, and to uphold the human rights of people living with HIV.

But for as long as we fall short in promoting universal human rights, we will continue to fall short on achieving universal access for the prevention, treatment and care of those with HIV and AIDS. International human rights commitments are crucial in focusing and reinforcing a comprehensive response. Universal human rights work best from both the top down, when countries commit to the principles - and from the bottom up, when people can live them.

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