Rome, 19 July, 2011 - Thirty one lawyers and advocates from Latin America, Southern Africa, the United States, Northern Africa and the Middle East gathered in Rome on the 15 and 16 July for the Second International Consultation on HIV-Related Services and Rights, co-organized by IDLO and the Ford Foundation and supported by the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID).
The consultation was held at the Radisson Blu es. Hotel, with simultaneous interpretation in Arabic, English and Spanish. It was only the second occasion that lawyers and activists from these regions have been able to discuss the issues with such interpretation. The first occasion was at the IDLO consultation in Vienna, Austria, in July 2010. During the two days of intense discussions, delegates shared lessons in strengthening and expanding HIV-related legal services and rights; as well as the common challenges of weak implementation of protective frameworks, particularly in the context of poverty and lack of human rights.
The Conference Chair, Dr Khadija T. Moalla, UNDP Programme Coordinator for HIV in Arab States, based in Egypt, called for a multidisciplinary approach to the rights-based response to HIV – “It is not enough to focus on good law and a good judiciary, an enabling environment is essential. A culture of litigation needs first a culture of acceptance, particularly from religious leaders and media messaging.” Echoing Dr Moalla, the Colombian lawyer Mr German Humberto Rincon Perfetti stated that “Bodies have to be free and governments have to be secular in order to [effectively] respond to HIV.” Presentations and debate throughout the conference reiterated the devastating impact of discriminatory laws on the lives of women and men living with HIV, and focused on three central issues: the rights of women and girls, decriminalization of sex work and sex between men, and intellectual property and access to treatments.
Ms Priti Patel from the HIV/AIDS Southern African Litigation Centre joined Ms Yolanda Guirola from the Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera Institute of Women’s Studies to lead discussion on the rights on women and girls. Ms Patel highlighted that “A significant challenge in the public health framework is that beyond the standardized pre-test and post-test HIV counseling, there is no conversation surrounding the next decisions in a woman’s life – Can I have children? How can I go about having children? Where can I go for support? On these issues women do not know where to turn for support to enable them to lead the life they want to live.” On the second day of debate, Mr Joel Gustave Nana Ngongang, from African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, led the discussion on decriminalization of sex between men, and shared the strategic advocacy approaches taken in Africa: “Decriminalization is important but it is not our primary focus – the utmost goal is protection.” Mr Ngongang then added: “Decriminalization is a component of the protective framework in which we work. We cannot wait for sodomy to be decriminalized in order to ensure that men who have sex with men can access services; the ability of men who have sex with men to access services has to be protected, regardless of the status of criminal laws.”
On Intellectual Property (IP) and access to treatments, lawyers from the Middle East and North Africa emphasized the significant challenge in ensuring that people living with HIV can access life saving treatment and noted a widespread lack of awareness of the right to health. Presenter, Ms Renata Camile Reis, from the Brazilian Working Group on IP and the ABIA-Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association, urged “If one person needs treatment, she has a right to be treated, even if she is the only person in the country.” Emerging from the conference, delegates resolved to continue to build regional and inter-regional relationships, recognizing the importance of learning and sharing and the role of regional and international advocacy in catalyzing change. Mr Ruben E. Pecchio Ospina, from the Latin American Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, stressed: “When your national context does not allow you to act, regional networks can provide the tools and leadership to progress.”
The report of the consultation will be published on the IDLO website in early September 2011.