UK charities and Non Governmental Organisations are calling the UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS “a massive disappointment.”

After three days of intense negotiation, lobbying and demonstrations, UK groups attending the UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS expressed disappointment at the political declaration and perceived lack of genuine involvement of community organisations and people living with HIV and AIDS.

The 2006 Declaration calls for the development of improved drugs, diagnostics and prevention technologies, including vaccines and microbicides, and reaffirms that the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) does not prevent countries from protecting the public health by producing generic drugs.

It also calls for $20 billion to $23 billion for the AIDS response by 2010.

The 2006 Declaration also promotes the protection of human rights, gender equality and the education and empowerment of women and young people, especially girls, to reduce their vulnerability to HIV.

The resolution demands that Member States strengthen efforts to combat stigma and social exclusion connected with the epidemic, endorsing full rights to education, inheritance, employment, health care, social and health services, legal protection and HIV information, prevention, support, and treatment for people living with or vulnerable to the virus.

It emphasises prevention of infection must be the mainstay of all responses and therefore Members States “commit to intensify efforts to ensure that a wide range of prevention programmes which take account of local circumstances, ethics and cultural values is available in all countries, particularly the mot affected countries.”

Information, education and communication should be made available in languages most understood by these communities and respectful of cultures, while aimed at reducing risk-taking behaviours and encouraging responsible sexual behaviour, including abstinence and fidelity.

Access to essential life-saving commodities, including male and female condoms, harm-reduction related to drug use, safe blood supplies and early and effective treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were among the declaration’s other demands.

A spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “The Secretary-General applauds the adoption of the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS by the High Level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

“He is particularly heartened that with this Declaration, Governments have committed themselves to actions to promote gender equality, the empowerment of women and the protection of girls; respect for the full rights of people living with HIV/AIDS; strengthened protection for all vulnerable groups — whether young people, sex workers, injecting drug users, or men who have sex with men; provision of the full range of HIV prevention measures, including male and female condoms and sterile injection equipment; and the full engagement in the response of the private sector and civil society, including people living with HIV.”

The group’s main criticisms of the final political declaration were contradictions that appear to support ideologically-driven abstinence campaigns, whilst also claiming to support evidence and human rights based approaches, a failure to support “vulnerable groups” such as the rights of men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, migrants, prisoners, and sex workers.

They also cite weak language on empowerment of girls, complete lack of reference to the African Union declaration of 2006, when Heads of State committed to ambitious targets on HIV prevention, treatment and care, a refusal to set deadlines and targets for access to treatment.

However, groups welcomed some progress, especially in recognising the need for $20-23 billion dollars annually, committing to work towards universal access to HIV treatments, alongside prevention, care and support, retaining references to condoms despite opposition from some governments, recognising the wider needs of orphans and vulnerable children.

Sarah Hammond Ward, Chair of the UK Consortium on Aids International Development and a civil society representative on the UK government delegation said:

“On some major areas, the UK government took a firm stand that we supported, such as on human rights. However, as the Government which led the G8 commitment to treatments, we were disappointed by their reluctance to push for global targets. Overall the document is a massive disappointment. The HIV crisis needed a bold commitment, not a fudged failure.”

Winnie Ssyanu Sseruma, Chair of the African HIV Policy Network, openly living with HIV and civil society representative on the UK national delegation, criticised the way in which civil society was not involved in the negotiations, “The process promised to be a unique opportunity to engage people at the front line of the epidemic but our messages fell on deaf ears. The civil society walkout on Thursday night was a reaction to the chaotic process and the tokenistic inclusion from most of the UN member states.”

Nick Partridge, speaking from the United Nations comprehensive review and high level meeting on AIDS in New York said:

“Negotiations at UNGASS throughout the week have strengthened the new declaration on HIV. However, it’s still not the step change in the global fight against AIDS that could and should have been achieved. Commitments on Worldwide access to prevention and treatment have been made and over $20 billion will go into tackling HIV by 2010. From now on Governments across the globe must redouble their efforts against the epidemic.” Nick Partridge, Chief Executive Terrence Higgins Trust.

In his address at the special session, Hilary Benn, UK Secretary of State for International Development criticised the meeting for its lack of explicit reference to those most affected, such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and drug users.

“I wish we could have been a bit more frank in our declaration about telling the truth.

“Now I recognise that some of these truths are difficult and uncomfortable. But I would simply say that we cannot let discomfort get in the way of saving lives, just as we cannot let prejudice get in the way of the facts.”