Current Affairs

Diane Abbott: UK’s absence from UN AIDS summit sends worrying message

Diane Abbott June 7, 2016
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Diane Abbott, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, attacks the UK’s absence from the UN’s High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS.

This week, a high level political meeting takes place at the UN in New York to discuss the steps member states need to take to end AIDS. We are at a crucial point in the fight against AIDS.

We need to scale up the response over the next four years to be on track to meet the commitment to end the AIDS pandemic by 2030 – a goal set by the UK alongside other countries as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the last High Level Meeting on Ending AIDS in 2011, the coalition government sent a delegation led by Minister Stephan O’Brien.

But sadly, this time round, no minister from the UK Government will attend.

In addition, the Department for International Development (DFID), the lead department for this UN meeting, is not planning to send a senior member of staff either.

In the context of a meeting that is expected to be well attended by ministers and even presidents from some countries, this sends a bad message about the importance the UK places on a successful High Level Meeting.

The UK supports the Sustainable Development Goals but lack of attendance at one of the first UN meetings directly related to their achievement is a worrying indication of their commitment to this global agenda.

The UK has played a critical role in leading the global HIV response and DfID has been rightly lauded as the second largest global donor to HIV. But money cannot speak on its own behalf.

Leadership is needed to ensure that the UK’s financial commitment is matched by strong evidence-based policy and political commitments.

And few actions signal the UK’s commitment better than despatching a high-ranking minister to lead such a delegation. It signals to other states that this is something that matters to the UK.

It’s worrying therefore that a minister will not be present and I fear it is part of a trend in which we see HIV being progressively de-prioritised by the government. HIV has all but disappeared from DfID’s strategies, its public statements and from its website.

Ongoing commitment at the highest political level is still required. The latest data from the end of 2014 showed that 2 million people were infected that year and 1.2 million people died of AIDS-related illness.

AIDS is the number one killer of women of reproductive age and adolescents in Africa. Latest figures from UNAIDS show that certain groups, particularly sex workers, people who inject drugs, transgender people, prisoners and gay men and other men who have sex with men, are being left behind – 90% of new HIV infections in central Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa in 2014 were among people from key populations and their sexual partners.

In the Asia and Pacific region, Latin America and the Caribbean, people from key populations and their sexual partners accounted for nearly two thirds of new infections.

In sub-Saharan Africa, key populations accounted for more than 20% of new infections, and HIV prevalence among these populations is often extremely high.

For example, in South Africa, surveillance data published in 2015 estimated HIV prevalence among sex workers was 71.8% in Johannesburg,39.7% in Cape Town and 53.5% in Durban.

But the types of policy interventions needed to address the epidemic among these groups won’t be championed at the High Level Meeting unless countries like the UK are prepared to step up to the mark.

Do we want to see global policy on HIV dictated by conservative states that deny basic human rights to LGBT people and actively block harm reduction methods needed to end AIDS among people who inject drugs?

Or states which go out of their way to block LGBT representation and deny representation to civil society generally in discussions about AIDS?

The truth is that progressive states like the UK need a strong and resolute place at the table in UN meetings like this. To do otherwise is to leave the stage open to other countries to push often deeply regressive policies of their own.

We know what is required to bring about the end of AIDS, particularly among groups who are most affected, including LGBT people, sex workers and people who inject drugs.

The absence of a high level political representative from the UK at the HLM sends the wrong message.

Diane Abbott is the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.

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