Helen Clark: Keynote Address to the Meeting of the Parliamentarians at the 20th International AIDS Conference

Jul 21, 2014

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
Keynote Address
to the
Meeting of Parliamentarians
at the
20th International AIDS Conference
State Parliament of Victoria
Melbourne, Australia

I’m pleased to address this meeting of parliamentarians gathered at the International AIDS conference, and to acknowledge UNDP’s co-hosts of this meeting – the Inter-Parliamentary Union and our sister organisation UNAIDS.

UNDP’s support for today’s meeting stems from our mandate to work for the eradication of poverty and to roll back inequalities and exclusion – both of which are highly relevant to the response to the HIV epidemic.

HIV/AIDS can trap families, communities, and nations in poverty.  The world won’t eradicate poverty without tackling this epidemic decisively.

But AIDS is also increasingly a disease of inequalities and exclusion.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps the best macroeconomic predictor of HIV prevalence now is the level of income inequality : the higher the inequality, the higher the rate of HIV.

Gender inequality and sexual and gender-based violence are contributing to the higher rates of HIV infection among women and girls.  And other groups disproportionately affected by HIV are those who experience exclusion in many societies : men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people, and injecting drug users.

Tackling these drivers of HIV requires courageous and committed policy-makers and law-makers.  You, as parliamentarians, have an indispensable role to play in building the coalitions for action to change bad laws which entrench exclusion, and to ensure that services are available to at risk groups often shunned by society.  You too can advocate for gender equality, women’s empowerment, and action against sexual and gender-based violence to lower the disproportionate risk of HIV infection faced by women and girls.

At UNDP, we aim to support your efforts in two ways :

1.    We are the world’s largest implementer of parliamentary development programming, and currently are doing this work in 68 countries.  We aim to build the capacity of parliamentarians to work on crucial issues – of which HIV is clearly one.

2.    We provide evidence of what works in HIV responses – drawn from our wide experience as a Principal Recipient of Global Fund money for HIV prevention and treatment in many countries, and from the role we play within the family of UNAIDS co-sponsors on rights-based approaches to HIV.

I have been deeply impressed to see for myself initiatives on HIV responses where UNDP has been able to break new ground in partnership with governments and civil society stakeholders.  

In Iran last year, I met people at one of the Positive Clubs established to provide services and support to people living with HIV.

In Belarus recently, I met previously injecting drug users whose lives had been transformed by the establishment of methadone maintenance centres, which greatly reduced their risk of HIV and other diseases.

In Burkina Faso, I met sex workers who relied on the local centre we were supporting for their condom supplies and HIV testing.

Fighting the spread of HIV often means politicians and officials being prepared to go well beyond their personal comfort zones to ensure access to services for those on the margins of society.
In doing this, it helps to have a conducive legal and policy environment.  Wherever there are bad laws, effective responses to the HIV epidemic are much more difficult to implement.

In 2010, UNDP, working with UNAIDS, convened the Global Commission on HIV and the Law to gather evidence on how better law could help fight the epidemic. The Commission was headed by the former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardozo.  It included the former President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, and the Honorable Michael Kirby -  highly respected former judge in Australia’s High Court.  A majority of its fifteen members were current or former members of parliaments.  A number of those addressing this meeting today were associated with the Commission.

Over the course of two years, the Commission held seven regional dialogues, and received and analysed more than 1,000 submissions.  In July 2012 it reported a number of important findings, and concluded that laws can play a powerful role in advancing the well-being of people living with HIV and those vulnerable to HIV.  It also goes without saying that changing the law is a low-cost tool in the fight against AIDS.

Initially, the HIV virus disproportionately affects members of particular populations which are often socially marginalized.  These may include women and girls; men who have sex with men; injecting drug users; sex workers; transgender people; and prisoners.  The Commission found that countries whose laws reinforce such marginalization tend to have poor HIV outcomes.  Conversely, those countries whose laws empower members of marginalized groups, enabling them to access information and intervention for prevention and treatment to keep themselves and their partners and families safe, tend to have more effective HIV responses.

This is where you as Parliamentarians come in.  You can work for better laws which will support better HIV responses.  To support this work, UNDP and the IPU have produced a handbook titled “Effective Laws to End HIV and AIDS : Next Steps for Parliamentarians.”

The handbook is inspired in large part by the report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.  It contains a series of case studies from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia.  It also includes practical suggestions about how parliamentarians can use the tools available to them to promote reforms which will contribute to more effective national HIV responses.

Parliamentarians may well face particular challenges when legislating on matters which touch on areas like gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual health, and human rights.  This guide suggests strategies to overcome such challenges, and highlights successful law reform which demonstrates that change is politically feasible, even on difficult issues.  

For example :

In Mongolia, the new Law on Prevention of Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome repealed the previous 2004 AIDS law.  It ended discrimination against people living with HIV, including unrealistic disclosure requirements, discriminatory travel and entry restrictions, and discriminatory employment restrictions.

In New Zealand, the Prostitution Reform Act (2003) decriminalized sex work.  This enabled workers to benefit from health and safety policies, including access to specialized health services.
In South Africa, where the lack of legal identity documents made it hard for transgender and intersex people to access HIV services, the adoption of the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act, No.49, enabled transgender and intersex people to change their official registered sex and get updated identity documents, via application to the Department of Home Affairs.

In Switzerland, the Epidemics Act 2013 changed Article 231 of the Swiss Penal Code.  In the past that Article had been used to prosecute people living with HIV for transmission and exposure, including in cases where that had been unintentional.

The law changes highlighted as best practices in the handbook have rarely been easy, and often have taken a number of years to achieve.  In the current environment, such achievements must also be safeguarded.  The parliamentarians involved have had to use a range of careful strategies.  These are set out in this document. They range from coalition-building to last minute amendments and careful media handling, in order to succeed in their campaigns.  These law-reforming parliamentarians draw on advice from the people most affected by bad laws, and on international laws and evidence, to ensure that their proposals are viable.

In closing, let me emphasize that my experience – including as a former parliamentarian and head of government – is that leadership is vital if bad laws are to be changed. We count on the leadership of all here today.  UNDP stands ready to assist your law reform efforts through our global , regional and Country Office networks.  In co-operation with UNAIDS and other UN system colleagues, and with our wide range of partners globally in governments and civil society, we will support legislators to pass good laws which will turn the tide on HIV.

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