Is HIV work human rights work? |

Guest Blog Post from Action against AIDS

Our friends at Action against AIDS co-hosted a virtual conference, “Is HIV Work Human Rights Work,” in late 2020.  At the conference discussion focused on Eastern Europe and Central Asia where participants argued the regions need a fundamental change of course in their HIV policies to bring the still expanding epidemic under control. Experts from the region discussed paths to effective prevention measures and care.

The number of HIV infections has been rising in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for years – against the global trend. The reason lies in a disastrous mixture of stigmatization and persecution of the most affected groups, as well as in the growing weakening of civil society organizations, which always play a key role in measures against HIV. The coronavirus pandemic is now exacerbating the situation even more.

(Timecodes for the keynote speakers are listed below )

Video of the opening panel  of the Eastern Europe Conference also available online in both German and Russian.

Michel Kaztchkine, UN Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia highlighted the crisis in his keynote address and stressed the impact the epidemics of HIV, TB and Hepatitis are having on key populations, the further impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He underlined the great need for and role of a constantly changing, “fluid” civil society and both the perception of and respect for human rights.

 “In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we realize that while we can all be affected, some of us have a much higher health risk than others. Non-governmental and community organizations are best placed to ensure access to HIV-related services for the most vulnerable populations. Civil society organizations can also identify and address the social, economic, political and moral injustices and inequalities that drive the epidemic in the region”, so Michel Kazatchkine in our press release prior to the conference. 

Ralf Jürgens, Senior Coordinator, Human Rights at The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria shared in his keynote his experience as a human rights activist in the region. He addresses the value of pragmatic approaches in implementing programs, that invoke human rights approaches, and presented how the Global Fund seeks to promote human rights-based programs through strategic approaches, thereby providing access to prevention and medicines for neglected groups.

The key notes from both speakers provided an impressive overview into the situation in the region. Raminta Stuikyte, Senior Advisor to the UN Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia moderated the session. Binod Mahanty, Advisor to the Federal Ministry of Health, addressed the audience on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Health, Sylvia Urban, Board Member of Action against AIDS and of German AIDS Federation welcomed the participants on behalf of the event team. 

The opening session was followed by three panels with activists and civil society members from various countries from the region:

The Situation of Countries in Transition

Many countries in Eastern Europe are in a process of transition: Internationally financed support, such as that provided by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), can no longer be provided because conditions for the proper use of the funds are not met or because the countries themselves have sufficient financial power. The countries have to pay for their measures themselves – and do so according to their own criteria. That means NGOs often no longer receive support. The changes in financing are actually causing care systems to collapse. Civil society organizations can no longer maintain prevention services, access to information and community-based programs. People with HIV or tuberculosis and those groups that are particularly hard hit are left alone. As a result, the number of new infections increases and previous successes are cancelled out. The panelists addressed and discussed the precarious situation in the region, the need for sustainable programs and the responsibility of public donors, all in light of a new and growing epidemic.

Shrinking Civil Society – Shrinking Spaces?

The withdrawal of international donors often means that NGOs no longer receive funding for their services and have to discontinue them, which often even means the end of the organization. Against the background that civil society organizations in Eastern European countries in general have neither the political tradition nor sufficient financial resources, the decline in civil society involvement in the areas of HIV/AIDS, TB and viral hepatitis is linked to considerable consequences for the rights of the main groups affected. In addition, the GFATM has explicitly supported cooperation between the private, governmental and non-governmental sectors by creating the Country Coordinating Mechanisms (CCM). The withdrawal of the GFATM is therefore usually accompanied by a weakening of civil society. Civil society members and activists from Belarus, the Russian Federation, Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan discussed challenges and good practice examples from the region and differences between countries and regions. One of the topics addressed were the differences between civil society and community-based organizations: it can make a huge difference from a client-perspective, if, for example, support programs for people using drugs are delivered by community-led NGOs. The INPUD report “Out in the cold” that summarises this discussion and provides recommendations for further funding.

Is Human Rights “automatically” HIV/AIDS work?

The perception of the topic of human rights and the way it is dealt with seems to be culturally and politically influenced, and its relevance is therefore also classified differently: with sometimes considerable differences between our Western, individualistic view and the perception by more collectivist, Eastern European societies. On the other hand, prevention work is not affordable if the individual rights and practices of drug users, sex workers or homosexuals are not respected and addressed. During the session we discussed how to overcome this contradiction without becoming moral and appearing culturally and economically superior. The integration of human rights-based arguments in the HIV response are common in the western part of the world. However, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia some politicians perceive the human rights argument as cultural inappropriate, if not to say, “western propaganda”. To find the right balance for NGOs and using the right arguments is sometimes difficult, Ralf Jürgens demonstrated in his key note presentation the importance of pragmatic approaches. At the end its about programs to save people’s lives that make a real difference. 

180 participants from 33 countries registered for the conference that was held on December 14 and  organized by AIDS Action Europe, Action against AIDS Germany, Bread of the World and the German Aids Federation. Thanks to all the speakers and panellists that helped to make the conference a success. The names of all participants are mentioned in the conference program in English and Russian.   

Feedback and contact: Peter Wiessner, Action against AIDS Germany,

Timecodes for video above:

  • 00:00 Start
  • 00:05 Welcome by Sylvia Urban, Executive Board of the German Aids Federation and the Action against Aids Alliance
  • 08:57 Binod Mahanty, Speaker Federal Ministry of Health
  • 15:08 Welcome by Raminta Stuikyte, Senior Advisor to UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
  • 18:49 Michel Kazatchkine, UN Secretary General Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe. Key Note: “HIV in Eastern Europe, Role of Civil Society”.
  • 47:56 Ralf Jürgens, Senior Coordinator, Human Rights at The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Key Note: “Importance of HIV and human rights work in Eastern Europe”.
  • 1:20:05 Discussion with Raminta Stuikyte, Michel Kazatchkine and Ralf Jürgens.