Follow the Red Clad Delegates
July 20, 2010
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Global Health Policy Center
If you weren’t sure how to get to the Messe Wein conference center, where the 18th week-long International AIDS Conference opened yesterday, you just had to follow one of the thousands of people wandering the streets of Vienna wearing a red ribbon pin, carrying a red conference shoulder bag, or clutching a giant red umbrella in hopes of warding off the rain. Conference planners expected more than 25,000 delegates from 100 countries to attend AIDS 2010, the theme of which is “Human Rights, Right Now.” As the meetings got underway with symposia, workshops, and a nighttime opening session featuring classical music, protesters, technical expositions, and political discourse, attendees expressed a variety of goals for the week, ranging from learning about new scientific advances and networking to seeing a greater commitment on the part of donor countries to bolster funding and develop more meaningful partnerships with governments in the countries most affected by the epidemic.
For those who arrived early, several afternoon sessions on Sunday provided a preview of the themes likely to dominate discussion in the week ahead. One panel focused on AIDS diplomacy and featured presentations by AIDS ambassadors from Sweden, Norway, France, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States. Seeking to answer the question, “Is This the End of AIDS Diplomacy?” speakers noted that while AIDS diplomacy is not dead, the style of AIDS diplomacy needs to change. In particular, several noted, AIDS diplomacy needs to move away from traditional diplomatic notions of “power and self-interest” and better incorporate youth and other non-traditional diplomats in an effort to reach broader, common goals. Others noted that it should not just be donor countries carrying out AIDS diplomacy and suggested that it is time to support countries where the epidemic has been most severe in developing their own diplomatic agendas with respect to HIV/AIDS. Midway through the session protesters identifying themselves as members of ACT Up Paris interrupted the presentation, chanting “G8 counts pennies, Africa counts the dead,” to demand greater donor country funding for work on AIDS and more follow-through with respect to G8 commitments.
A second afternoon session examined the ways in which addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic can contribute to efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Presenters representing an array of government agencies, multilateral organizations, and non-governmental organizations focused their attention on the benefits of integrating program activities, such as those focused on HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, and sexual and reproductive health services. With many presenters focused on the health-related MDGs 4, 5, and 6, some from the audience questioned the links between HIV and goal 7 (related to environmental sustainability), noting it is important to consider the effects of environmental degradation and climate change on populations vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. While there was some debate as to whether there is enough evidence to support broad-based integration efforts at this time, many speakers and audience participants emphasized the importance of program integration as a means of better serving HIV/AIDS patients and ensuring all their health needs – both those related to HIV/AIDS as well as non-HIV/AIDS health issues – are met in a setting most convenient to them.
The opening ceremony kicked off with a concert by the Schönbrunn Palace Orchestra, followed by remarks by AIDS 2010 chair Julio Montaner of Canada and Brigitte Schmied of Austria. Protest groups took the stage early on to draw attention to a campaign urging “No Retreat” on AIDS funding, while from the floor a group demanded greater attention to efforts to “decriminalize sex work” in the context of broader attention to human rights. Through speeches focused on the regional dimension of the AIDS epidemic in Eastern Europe, the state of the epidemic globally, Austria’s experience addressing HIV/AIDS domestically, and recent developments in the scientific quest for a cure, the conference theme, “Human Rights, Right Now” was repeatedly invoked. Several speakers noted that without adequate attention to ensuring the political, civil and sexual rights of women and girls, sex workers, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and other vulnerable sectors, it will be impossible to halt the spread of HIV, not to mention reach earlier goals of “universal access” to life-saving medical treatments.
As the ceremony came to close and the thousands of red-clad delegates spilled out of the auditorium and into the night, many attendees expressed optimism that the next five days will offer opportunities to share ideas, gain new insights, and advance discussion on key legal, political and technical debates. Monday morning’s plenary session devoted to “Positive Health, Dignity, and Prevention” will get the process under way.