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Significant Canadian Involvement in AIDS2000
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network pushes for human rights

with Marwaan Macan-Markar in Durban.

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WITH tears in her eyes, Yvonne Mokgoro, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, told a Canadian organized satellite meeting on legal issues at Durban City Hall on Friday that she would have to leave early in order to attend a funeral in her home town.

"There is no longer room for the ordinary," urged Justice Mokgoro.  "We have to take drastic steps," she said.

"We need to promote both the rights and the obligations of people living with HIV and affected by HIV -  we have to have the courage to do that" she added.

In a passionate presentation on treatment access, activist Zackie Achmat urged the participants to use the rule of law to defend the poor and vulnerable, and to promote 'treatment literacy.'  He also accused international organizations of failing to involve all stakeholders in negotiations to reduce the prices of essential AIDS drugs.

Edwin Cameron, Justice of the High Court of South Africa, in his summation of the day's proceedings urged the participants - 130 lawyers and activists from around the world - to convert their anger and their grief into action.

The one-day satellite meeting, entitled "Putting Third First - Critical Legal Issues and HIV/AIDS," was the first ever to address legal issues at an international AIDS conference.  The meeting was open to people not attending AIDS2000, and addressed the AIDS-related legal and ethical aspects of four issues:  access to treatments; vaccines; criminal law; and the vulnerability of women.

The event was organized by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the AIDS Law Project, South Africa and co-hosted by UNAIDS.

The one-day meeting was intended to give participants from both developing and developed countries the chance to discuss a limited number of concrete issues in substantial depth.  The focus was on legal strategies to advance the human rights of those most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and to discrimination:  people in the developing world and people who, although they live in the developed world, suffer from poverty and marginalization and are at high risk of contracting HIV.

According to the Canadian legal body, people afflicted with HIV/AIDS have become victims of two epidemics - the disease and the "one of stigma and discrimination."  As a result, such discrimination affects the lives of both the victims of the disease and their lovers, families and caregivers.

This epidemic of stigma has consequences, it pointed out, since infected people have been prevented from seeking or obtaining the health care and social support they require, adults with the disease have lost their jobs or have been denied employment, and afflicted children have been denied care.

It asserted that in Canada, for instance, "cases of discrimination have been documented in many areas, including housing, employment, prisons, access to health care and access to public services."

Cathi Albertyn of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa wrote a discussion paper for the satellite.

"In the area of HIV/AIDS, there are several areas of rights that could potentially be used to mobilise people, groups and communities," she observed in the paper.

In her view, a rights campaign requires one to frame the issues carefully, drawing on broad-based support, a range of legal and non-legal strategies, and sufficient resources.

And that calls for using rights that are already entrenched in the law.

Painting of Durban City Hall with red ribbon
"Where rights are entrenched in national laws, they can serve both as catalyst for change and a defensive strategy against constraints that states or [their] citizens seek to impose on persons or groups," claimed Albertyn.  Furthermore, she referred to the range of 'first generation rights' - like equality, dignity, privacy and security of the person - that could be drawn upon to secure the rights of HIV/AIDS patients.

Securing the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, in fact, is one area that UNAIDS still deems wanting, despite the "International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights" it has published in tandem with the UN High Commission for Human Rights.

This publication, which focuses on 12 aspects of HIV/AIDS and human rights, specifically calls on governments and communities to "confront the issues with a sense of urgency."

It emphasizes, furthermore, that the fulfillment of a state's obligation to non-discrimination, health, information, education, social welfare and public participation is "crucial not only to ensure human care and support for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, (but) it is also vital in the fight to reduce people's vulnerability to infection."

According to UNAIDS, the need to push through this message - that human rights and public health are inextricably linked - will be on the agenda of its team of top officials during the Durban gathering.

Extensive Canadian participation

The list of Canadian groups and individuals participating in the thirteenth International AIDS Conference in South Africa this week is not short.

Organizations include Health Canada, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Association for HIV Research, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research, the Canadian HIV Trials Network, Correctional Services Canada, the Canadian Treatment Advocates Council, the Community AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, the Canadian AIDS Society, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, the British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, the Community-Based Research Centre (Vancouver), the Vancouver / Richmond Health Board, the Clinical Research Institute of Montréal, and the Prince Albert Health District.

Individuals include those Canadians associated with the above groups as well as the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development, the National Minority AIDS Council, and the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations.

The Canadian contingent will be organizing, sponsoring, presenting, or participating in a range of symposia and workshops with titles including:  3rd International HIV Prevention Works Symposium, 2000 Global Research Network Meeting on HIV Prevention in Drug-Using Populations, HIV/AIDS Policy Dialogue: Engaging Youth in the Fight Against AIDS, The Basics of Advocacy on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, Building the Framework:  How Communities Can Develop, HIV/AIDS Vaccines:  The Basics, Twinning for the 21st Century, Breaking the Silence with Community-Based Research, Working Together:  Communication and Conflict, Building and Sustaining Networks, Human Rights Advocacy, and Action Research Methods for Grass Roots Activists.

Oral and poster presentations on a variety of topics will also be made by individual researchers, while six fixed exhibits have been set up including The Canada Booth - a display coordinated by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Clearinghouse on behalf of Health Canada, the Canadian International Development Agency and the many partners involved in the Canadian Strategy on HIV/AIDS.