UNAIDS held a high-level plenary meeting on HIV/AIDS at the UN Headquarters in New York, June 10-11. The meeting was convened as a follow-up to the Declaration of Engagement on HIV/AIDS and the 2006 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS. The two-day meetings included a plenary meeting, panel discussions, an interactive civil society hearing and numerous side events. Interestingly, the event, co-sponsored by UNESCO, the UNAIDS Secretariat, UNFPA and International Planned Parenthood – Western Hemisphere was accessible by invitation only. UNICEF and the World Health Organization also hosted a side event to discuss mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This event was also by invitation only.

Certain UN bodies and groups are trying to feminize the issue of HIV/AIDS, which could open the door to push for other sexual and “reproductive rights,” including abortion. The UNFPA produced a training manual for managers, entitled, “Engaging Faith-Based Organizations in HIV Prevention.” The document stated that: “Marriage is not always protective; even faithful married women are vulnerable.” Such statements help legitimize demands for funding for the distribution of condoms.

However, when the latest UNAIDS report was made public last November, Paul De Lay, director of evidence, monitoring and policy for UNAIDS, said, “The most significant reason for the decline in new infection in the hardest-hit areas in Southern Africa appeared to be the increase in fidelity – more people were being faithful to one partner.” The desire of various groups to use the HIV/AIDS epidemic as leverage in other battles was made evident.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon addressed the participants assembled during an interactive civil society hearing, stating that “it was the government’s responsibility to serve, protect and uphold the rights of all citizens no matter their age, sexual preference or lifestyle.” Much discussion took place around travel restrictions, the need to decriminalize commercial sex work (prostitution) and to stop “stigmatizing” or “discriminating” against people based on their lifestyle choices. Leonardo Sanchez of Amigos Siempre Amigos gave a presentation on the rights of “sexual minorities.” He emphasized the need to “hold institutional dialogues to empower sexual minorities,” which typically include men who have sex with men (UN-speak for people who engage in homosexual behaviour) and transgender individuals.

During the informal discussion, a woman representing the International Women’s Coalition said that anti-trafficking laws interfered with the “human rights” of sex workers and insisted that commercial sex work should be decriminalized because it is a legitimate way to make a livelihood. The current trend is to use a rights-based approach in the context of HIV/AIDS. In other words, persons have the right to define themselves as their behavioral patterns.

Groups advocating for the rights of “marginalized” people demanded that member states be held accountable for the commitments they made to end HIV/AIDS. However, no one can hold individuals who engage in behaviours that put them at higher risk of contracting the virus accountable for their life choices. This is different for other health-related issues in which personal responsibility is recognized. According to many at the UN, it is acceptable for society to try to deter people from engaging in activities that put them in a higher-risk category when it comes to smoking and the increased risk of lung cancer, but it is wrong to discourage other harmful behaviours.

Alex Zalipov of Russia, in a presentation about People Using Drugs, stated that, “HIV is a virus, not a moral issue.” If HIV is indeed a virus like any other, it should be treated like any other pandemic or epidemic that occurred throughout human history. The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute’s Samantha Singson said “gay rights groups were demanding that countries decriminalize, destigmatize and even promote the high-risk sexual behaviours that spread AIDS, even though it has been shown that all of these behaviours exponentially increase the risk of contracting the virus.” The focus should be on helping people who are victims of the disease, such as children born with HIV/AIDS, rather than on legitimizing certain types of behaviours that place people more at risk of contracting the virus or giving people resources that encourage harmful behaviours.