Rights, AIDS, past and future

6 min read

Panelists assess progress in human rights, fighting AIDS, President Bush garners some praise for his emergency plan

Sixty years after the United Nations declared health care a basic human right, the AIDS epidemic highlights how much work remains to be done as the disease rages on among populations with little access to quality care.

That was the message Monday (Dec. 8) at an event that was part assessment of progress made and part call to action for audience members who packed Harvard Medical School’s Joseph B. Martin Conference Center.

The event, “HIV/AIDS and the Right to Health: Leadership in the U.S. and Globally,” was held to mark twin anniversaries — World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dec. 10.

Organizers — which included the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, Physicians for Human Rights, Partners In Health, and the AIDS Action Committee — took the opportunity to honor Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for his leadership in human rights and health care.

Physicians for Human Rights Chief Executive Officer A. Frank Donaghue presented Kennedy with the PHR Award for Outstanding Leadership on the Right to Health, praising Kennedy’s “passionate advocacy” for affordable, quality health care and saying that no one in Congress has done more to champion health and human rights during our lifetimes.

Kennedy was unable to attend, but his great-nephew, Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Harvard Law School student, read a brief message from the senator. In it, Kennedy said he looked forward to working with the incoming Obama administration on health and human rights and that the good work of the organizers and those in the audience is needed now more than ever.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) addressed the conference hall by video from Washington, D.C., where he was preparing for a trip to Poland for a meeting on climate change. Kerry said that AIDS is a challenge similar to climate change in that it threatens a large part of the world and has no respect for national borders. He said he saw the ravages of AIDS during a recent trip to Durban, South Africa, a region with one of the world’s highest AIDS prevalency rates. Kerry praised PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — as enormously successful in funding HIV/AIDS programs in poor nations around the world. He added, however, that more must be done, calling the program “a preview of what’s possible.”

“Let’s all keep doing what brought us here today, let’s challenge ourselves to do better until we defeat this horrible epidemic once and for all,” Kerry said.

Jim Yong Kim, director of the Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, chief of the Division of Social Medicine and Health Inequalities at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and chair of the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said outgoing President George W. Bush should “get his due???? for PEPFAR, which, together with several other international initiatives, has helped make the progress against the global AIDS epidemic real.

Even so, Kim said, the incoming administration should guard against the plan becoming an entitlement program for only U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations and ensure the money goes to the best programs, wherever they’re from. Some organizational streamlining is also in order, he said.

Much remains to be done here in the United States as well, according to Rebecca Haag, president and chief executive officer of AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. Haag said that though progress is being made internationally, it is sometimes forgotten that the AIDS epidemic continues in the United States. Among U.S. blacks, she said, the disease is the No. 1 killer of women age 25 to 34, and the second-ranked killer of black men age 35 to 44.

In fact, she said, if black America were a separate nation, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people living with HIV. Among gay men, the disease is still the number one health threat. AIDS is at the center of many issues in the United States that need to be addressed, Haag said, such as homophobia, racism, and sexism. It’s also about making sure health care is available to marginalized communities. Key, she said, is finding a way to talk about sex, which remains difficult despite the need to communicate about sexually transmitted diseases.

“We have to talk about sex. In some ways what drives the HIV epidemic is sex-phobia. We must find ways to have these conversations,” Haag said.

Haag said economic recovery has to be high on the priority list of people who care about health care and AIDS because as workers lose their jobs, they also lose their health insurance. Health-care reform is an important long-term goal, she said, as are programmatic changes like lifting the federal ban on needle-exchange programs.

“The agenda is big, we now have leadership in Washington to allow us to tackle the problem at a domestic level as well,” Haag said.

Though health-related rights were addressed by several speakers, other types of rights were also discussed. Physicians for Human Rights CEO Donaghue said the whole world is watching what steps the Obama administration will take on these issues. He offered suggestions that include an absolute prohibition on torture coupled with apologies and reparations to victims of past torture, ratification of international treaties on human rights, investment in global health and women’s rights, and improvement of health care in the United States.

The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, co-pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Boston and chairwoman of the Save Darfur Coalition, said that 60 years after the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights was passed, the need to guard women’s rights remains as urgent as ever. She spoke of a Liberian refugee whose home was invaded by gunmen who raped her in front of her eight children.

That woman’s story remains all too common, White-Hammond said, and thousands of women are the victims of assault, rape, torture, and slavery.

“This isn’t just a story about women who are victims of war. It is about women as victims everywhere,” White-Hammond said. “We are living in a world where there is a culture of violence against women that operates with impunity.”