Commonwealth: crunch time for committing to ending AIDS

As Commonwealth Day 2012 approaches (12 March) HIV and AIDS remains a major challenge that the Commonwealth must commit to addressing.

This year Commonwealth Day marks Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th anniversary as the head of an institution which, over the years, has become a strong association of independent nations that share common values.

In these 60 years, Commonwealth nations have encountered few challenges as formidable as the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Although the Commonwealth contains only 30% of the world’s population, a shocking 60% of all people living with HIV live in Commonwealth countries. No other group of nations has been so disproportionately affected by the epidemic. It is time to reflect on the role the Commonwealth needs to play to better tackle HIV.

The story so far

Last year the ‘What’s Preventing Prevention?’ campaign worked hard to ensure that the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG), a group established to examine options around Commonwealth reform, made essential recommendations to deal with the challenge of HIV and AIDS.

They did, and Commonwealth Heads of Governments (CHOGM) who met in Perth in November last year agreed the following: to ensure that HIV and AIDS is prominent on the agendas of all relevant Commonwealth meetings; to develop HIV programmes with the private sector; and to advocate for more access by Commonwealth countries to global funding mechanisms to fight HIV and AIDS.

We know that a legal, policy and social environment which protects those at higher risk of HIV is essential in responding to the epidemic. The Commonwealth, with its shared language, common history and constitutional and legal system is uniquely placed to play a vital role in creating an enabling environment to tackle HIV.

However, across the Commonwealth outdated discriminatory and criminalising laws hinder effective HIV responses among men who have sex with men, transgender women, people who use drugs, sex workers and other key affected populations, and increase the vulnerability of people living with HIV.

EPG recommendations

Three of the most crucial recommendations made by the EPG were left for a ministerial taskforce to develop and present at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs meeting in New York in September 2012. The recommendations are to:

• Take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede the effective response of the Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic
• Create of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.
• Consider the implications of global laws regarding intellectual property protection (patents) for Commonwealth countries that face the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Together with our partners, the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) and the Commonwealth HIV and AIDS Action Group (CHAAG) the Alliance will keep campaigning for these key recommendations to be fully adopted.

A new Commonwealth Charter

Commonwealth governments are also currently working on a new Charter, which will be presented at the New York meeting. A draft text is open for consultation during March.

At the UN High Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS last June, the world’s governments committed to a human rights-based response to HIV. Some world leaders, such as the US administration, have committed to make ending AIDS a priority and to uphold the rights of those most vulnerable to HIV.

The new Chapter represents a unique opportunity for the Commonwealth to take a lead and commit its shared values to ending AIDS.

What do we want from the new Charter?

We are campaigning for the text of the Charter to:

• Expressly oppose all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
• Create a Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law.
• Commit to eliminating AIDS and prioritising malaria and tuberculosis as main health threats across the Commonwealth.
• Commit to creating a legal environment which protects people at higher risk of HIV and enables them to access HIV services.
• Support the production and trade of essential generic medicines between Commonwealth countries.
• Commit to the full participation of civil society in Commonwealth institutions and processes.
• Make sure that the Commonwealth Secretary General, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, and other Commonwealth Institutions are fully accountable for their work.

A real impact

If all of these aspects are included in the Charter, and the recommendations of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group are acted upon, the Commonwealth could make a real impact on HIV across the world.

In the coming weeks the International HIV/AIDS Alliance will be consulting Alliance Linking Organisations, Key Correspondents and other partners in Commonwealth countries as to how best they can advocate for these recommendations to be agreed by the Commonwealth.

If you’d like to get in touch about this campaign, please email Enrique Restoy, Campaign Manager at the Alliance Secretariat:

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