At the meeting last week of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Ministers (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, leaders of the 54 Commonwealth countries discussed recommendations from the Eminent Persons Group report into the status of the Commonwealth. Included in the report, Time for Urgent Reform, is a recommendation to repeal discriminatory laws that prevent the effective response of Commonwealth countries to tackle HIV. It also recommends the implementation of investigative processes for human rights violations, including the appointment of a Commissioner on democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
A mixed outcome
After many hours of debate by Heads of Government the outcome is a mixed picture. It was agreed that a Task Force of Ministers would provide further advice on most of the recommendations by the Eminent Persons Group. The advice of the Task Force will be presented at the Foreign Ministers Meeting in New York in September 2012.
Enrique Restoy is Alliance’s campaign manager. “The good news is that what we and our partners have been campaigning for is still on the agenda, thanks to the overwhelming support from around the world calling on the Commonwealth to adopt a more modern, progressive approach to human rights. The CHOGM has also acknowledged the seriousness of HIV in the Commonwealth and has committed to ‘accelerating action to implement the objectives outlined in the 2011 UN Political Declaration on AIDS’.”
However, less positive is the fact some countries are still stalling on the necessary legal reform and the decisive promotion of human rights.
“The more we wait the more people are likely to die unnecessarily of HIV related causes because they cannot access the services they need due to stigmatising and discriminatory legislation,” added Restoy.
Over 60% of people living with HIV are living in Commonwealth countries. Repressive laws stop people who are at greater risk of HIV accessing health services and life-saving treatment.
Changing the law is urgently needed
“The Alliance knows from 20 years experience that the law can be a huge barrier to people getting healthcare services,” said Anton Kerr, head of policy at the Alliance. “Changing the laws mean we can more effectively respond to HIV. Currently people can find themselves criminalised simply for being gay or trying to earn a living through sex work,” he said.
For example, in 41 of 54 of these countries homosexuality is a criminal offence; people who use drugs face the death penalty and criminal laws are applied with severe penalties for sex work.
UK government support
The UK government made clear its views at the meeting. Prime Minister David Cameron called for change at the Commonwealth and emphasised that those receiving UK aid should ‘adhere to proper human rights’ and threatened to withhold aid from countries that do not reform legislation banning homosexuality.
The work continues
The Alliance and partners will continue to advocate for these recommendations to be developed and adopted in New York next year.
“There is no way back,” said Kerr. “Ignoring the recommendations that the Commonwealth leaders themselves have made will simply add to the ever growing questions among Commonwealth citizens about the impact and relevance of the institution. The Alliance will continue to work closely with all parties to ensure that those affected and infected by HIV have the right to good healthcare,” he added.