UN meeting on AIDS: behind the scenes with civil society

It is not easy to get member state consensus on Political Declarations at the UN. Drafts go back and forth, words are pored over, red-lines get drawn and horse-trading is often the order of the day.

It is not easy to get member state consensus on Political Declarations at the UN. Drafts go back and forth, words are pored over, red-lines get drawn and horse-trading is often the order of the day.

I was in close contact with civil society representatives at this year’s UNAIDS High Level Meeting on AIDS and got to hear, first hand, the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings that have left many in the HIV world perplexed about the UN process.

The HLM kicked off with news that a swathe of LGBT organisations had been excluded from the meeting, a move that was roundly condemned by UNAIDS.

Much of the media coverage focussed on the fact that it was predominantly Muslim countries that were behind the ban. But this ignored the fact that many of the excluded groups – the Eurasian Coalition on Male Health (Estonia), African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, a coalition of 18 LGBT organisations across Africa, the Asia Pacific Transgender Network (Thailand) and groups from Jamaica, Peru and Ukraine notably – were not from Muslim countries and were given very little support by their host member states.

This points to a wider issue about how civil society are squeezed out of these processes by the actions of “conservative” member states including the Vatican, Russia and the African group of states.

Breaking the silence

In the final days before a UN meeting like the HLM, bargaining ceases and diplomatic missions go silent amid respective calculations of what can be gained by continuing to negotiate. A so-called ‘silent procedure’ is invoked by those facilitating the meeting.

With 48 hours to go before this year’s HLM civil society became concerned that too little had been won in the draft Political Declaration. The compromises in the declaration crucially centred on issues such as naming key populations and affirming their rights. Other compromises, once again, related to harm reduction on which the language was watered down.

During this period, it emerged that civil society groups themselves started to weigh up their options: Do we lobby progressive member states to re-open the discussions? Or do we walk away from the process outright? A source close to the negotiations said it soon became clear that none of the progressive blocs were minded to break the silence in favour of stronger commitments. A rumour also emerged that Russia was ready to step in to re-start the negotiations in a different direction entirely.

The source added: “Some Civil society groups were ready to call for boycotting the HLM. We think the whole Russian story might have been orchestrated to make sure civil society understand it could be much worse.”

African intransigence?

Another worrying feature of the HLM was the attempt by some African member states to “rebrand” the concept of key populations by excluding sex workers, transgender people and people who inject drugs from the commonly accepted definition of what the term means.

An original “zero draft” of the political declaration included a paragraph calling for the decriminalization of LGBT, people who use drugs, sex workers and transgender people. This was too problematic and was excluded from the final draft.

A civil society representative who witnessed first-hand some of the behind-the-scenes debate among member states, painted a depressing picture of intransigence in the face of evidence and accusations that some of the policies being called for were “Un-African.”

So all in all, a difficult process for key population advocates and tricky times ahead.

 

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