The UNAIDS fiasco of sponsoring a book launch last week in a country that prohibits entry to the individuals on whom the book is partially based, is now widely known.
It should never have happened. The book deals with human rights and the law in the Caribbean. The laws that most directly violate human rights and exacerbate HIV in the region are those that demonize homosexuals. Homosexuals are barred from entry to Trinidad and Tobago, where the launch occurred.
UNAIDS’ responses add insult to injury: that they didn’t publish the book (which is not at issue); that they didn’t issue the invitations (which bore their logo); that they didn’t pay for the book launch (which was both opened and closed by the highest-ranking UNAIDS officials in the Caribbean.) Those defenses don’t address what the book launch clearly revealed—that UNAIDS shouldn’t have its regional office in Trinidad and Tobago in the first place.
That’s the real nub of the issue.
UNAIDS has a network of Regional Support Offices that oversee activities across several countries. The strength of those offices rests largely in their convening power: they bring together, for meetings and seminars and conferences and events, individuals and groups who are fighting the virus. In the Caribbean and other regions, where men who have sex with men are at high risk of HIV, it is inevitable that homosexuals are among those regularly convened by UNAIDS, or by other groups operating under UNAIDS’ auspices or with whom UNAIDS participates.
So why is the Regional Support Office located in Trinidad and Tobago, a country with perverse and discriminatory laws against the very people who must be involved, engaged, and consulted? The agency’s senior staff member in the region assured AIDS-Free World that the law isn’t a hindrance; before big meetings, the agency makes back-door arrangements with government officials, requesting that they temporarily suspend their hatred to allow the entry of a few homosexuals hand-picked by UNAIDS.
Those covert deals are an assault on the dignity of the invitees, and an insult to gay people everywhere. And they make a mockery of the UN’s proclamations.
Every year, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of UNAIDS, calls forcefully for the elimination of laws that discriminate against homosexuals. Yet, in the Caribbean, UNAIDS is complicit in sustaining those laws.
Similarly, year after year, the Secretary-General of the UN has denounced laws that compromise the lives of LGBT citizens, yet UNAIDS in the Caribbean acts as though it’s not a member of the UN family.
The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, directly supported by UNAIDS, called specifically for an end to laws that discriminate against homosexuality. Yet, in the Caribbean, UNAIDS does the opposite.
The Regional Support Office of UNAIDS knows that the 2007 Conference Decision of the Heads of the Caribbean Community guarantees the right of every Caribbean citizen to freely enter any Caribbean country. With every regional meeting, UNAIDS and the government of Trinidad and Tobago conspire in ways that explicitly violate the Treaty.
UNAIDS’ implicit endorsement of Trinidad and Tobago’s immigration law extends the damage beyond homosexuals; it also gives license to the barring of people with disabilities, another repugnant provision in the statute. Entry is prohibited in the cases of “persons who are idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, persons suffering from dementia and insane persons”. This vile and medieval language was given legitimacy in 1998, when UNAIDS decided to place its office in the country, and it has been reinforced regularly with UNAIDS’ refusals to mount a challenge to the statute over the years.
Missing during those years is adherence by the UN to a UN-inspired commitment, the principle of Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV and AIDS, or “GIPA”, which has been endorsed by 192 member states of the United Nations. It is not possible for UNAIDS to uphold the rights of people living with HIV to inclusion, while aiding and abetting Trinidad and Tobago’s principle of exclusion.
This entire situation, given vivid clarity by the book launch, suggests an obvious imperative: the Government of Trinidad and Tobago should be told that unless the law is expunged, the UNAIDS office will be moved.
Panama is one logistical and ethical possibility since UNAIDS already has an office for Latin America there; several other regional UN offices, including those of UNICEF and UNDP, are also located in Panama. Whatever alternative is found, UNAIDS must reassign its allegiance to a country where freedom of movement, in and out, has no ugly barriers.
On the chance that all else fails, AIDS-Free World has launched a law suit against the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, designed to remove the offending clauses of the statute.
Where persuasion and common sense don’t work, litigation is the answer.