LAPC report by Lydia GUTERMAN
‘It is critical that elected representatives are willing to speak out for human rights and justice. It is very easy to play it safe and play the politics of fear... We have to speak the truth. We have to stop the criminalization of groups that are marginalized. We appeal to other elected leaders to do the same.’
—Libby Davis, MP from East Vancouver, Canada
This session follows a day-long side-event on HIV and human rights at which UNAIDS Senior Advisor on Human Rights sent a strong message to MPs that criminalization of homosexuality, HIV status nondisclosure, and drug use does not protect public health or safety and should not be a criminal justice matter. Criminalization creates a climate of fear, is bad public health and a detrimental to the fight against AIDS. MP panelists in the session reiterated this appeal and urged MPs not to rush to pass criminalization legislation.
This session was the first at any IAC to include a panel of only current or former MPs discussing their experience working with marginalized groups in the fight against AIDS and to appeal to other MPs to do the same as a matter of responsible governance.
South African MP, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, suggested that MPs will play a central role in the fight against AIDS in the next ten years and encouraged civil society to work with MPs especially on budget issues. She explained that it is government executives who often make public funding commitments such as the Abuja Declaration 15% to health commitment, but it is parliaments that make the budget. MPs should be key targets in funding advocacy.
Tim Barnett discussed the difficulty of MPs disclosing HIV status or sexual orientation if there is not strength in numbers. MPs’ staff often soaks up homophobia and anger and put themselves in great pressure. Libby Davis spoke of her work on harm reduction and human rights of people who use drugs.
The audience asked how to encourage MPs - especially in southern Africa where many MPs are known to be living with and also dying from AIDS - to disclose their HIV+ status and provide leadership for their constituency through visibility.
Panelists encouraged civil society to engage with elected officials in good times and in bad. Relationship maintenance makes it more likely that MPs will come through when needed most.
Track F report by Skhumbuzo Maphumulo
The session focused on MPs' role in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Different experiences from a number of countries were shared.
A South African MP stressed that MPs should endeavour to remove personal issues and emotions when dealing with legislation that affects people's lives. Criminalisation is not an answer to all HIV-related problems. A proper balance must be maintained between competing interests as MPs are expected to be compassionate by virtue of being members of the same communities. Social dialogue on controversial issues should be promoted, instead of ignoring concerns from constituencies. It is important to strike a balance between the rights of victims and offenders.
New Zealand was praised for decriminalising sex work and recognising same sex relationships. But prejudices against the gay community remain, making it difficult for individuals to disclose their sexual orientation. Gay people face many challenges that prevent them from reporting crimes to police, including including name calling, blackmail etc.
In Canada HIV positive individuals were increasingly dying of drug overdose. This led to a declaration of a public health emergency and a campaign against the criminalisation of marginalised people, which emphasizes the importance of public representatives speaking out in defence of the most vulnerable in society. A politician from Belgium mentioned that sexual and reproductive rights are still under threat worldwide, reinforcing the argument that MPs should not be quiet when rights are threatened. In Europe pressure from conservative and religious elements does not help the situation because this tends to reduce access to essential health services, especially in poor and migrant communities.
There was consensus that MPs must fight stigma, ignorance and discrimination. A focus on women's rights is key, including strengthening parliamentary committees on women’s rights and enacting laws against female genital mutilation and protecting against gender based violence should be passed. Good practices from other jurisdictions should be adopted.
Concern was raised that many MPs do not reveal their HIV-positive status in public. But disclosure is an individual’s decision. MPs should be encouraged (not forced) to disclose because they are influential. Civil society must continue to work closely with politicians in this regard, by creating an enabling environment for disclosure to take place.
MPs have an important role to play in ensuring that countries contribute to the Global Fund. Civil society must exert pressure on MPs and work with opposition parties for this to happen. Good political leadership is important in fighting HIV/AIDS.