It is fitting that just as we celebrate the importance of human rights in all spheres of development, UNAIDS and the Alliance, in collaboration with the Saudi government and the Arab League, held a workshop in Riyadh with 15 countries of the Middle East. This was an unprecedented occasion to share experiences, challenges and good practice around translating human rights based approaches into national AIDS programmes.
There are enormous differences in the way governments in this region approach HIV, with some countries having targeted and evidence-based national AIDS plans and others lacking national plans all together. In addition, many countries lack adequate data on their epidemic which would guide their current response to ensure that those most in need of prevention and care services are reached.
Discussions at the meeting were unusually frank and many participants reflected on the challenges in particular of addressing the needs of key populations, such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and drug users to ensure they are reached with appropriate HIV prevention services and with targeted and non-stigmatising treatment programmes.
The need for such services is clear. There are concentrated epidemics among these key populations in most of the region and low up-take of treatment services in many countries even though it is provided free of charge across much of the region.
“The workshop was a moment of enormous significance" commented one of the participants. "It was very important that in Saudi Arabia, the Holy site for Islam, we had the serenity to discuss issues around vulnerable groups and talk about the issues that really matter to the HIV response: sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men and human rights.”
As noted by UNAIDS this week, a worrying rise in the number of infections in the region, coupled with low treatment up-take is mainly linked to high levels of stigma and discrimination and there is a need to assess the legal and human rights environment.
The workshop allowed participants to engage more closely with practical tools to implement a human rights approach to tackle these issues comprehensively.
This workshop and the anticipated follow-up have shown the willingness and openness of countries in the region to find appropriate ways to address ‘sticky’ issues, such as reaching key populations, and addressing the negative public health impact of coercive policies, such as mandatory testing. A recent report of the deportation of foreigners due to HIV infection reminds us of the urgent need to ensure that a human rights based approach informs the Middle East response to a growing HIV epidemic.
Human rights are all about inclusiveness and ensuring that everybody in society, no matter their colour, ethnic background, religious affiliation or sexual orientation, is able to equally participate in society. The protection and promotion of human dignity must be the guiding principle of all our actions on AIDS and the Riyadh workshop is one important step in this direction.
Human Rights Day 2011: read more