Keynote Address at the UNDP and Asia Forum of Parliamentarians and Development

A speech delivered by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, Helen Clark to Asia-Pacific Parliamentarians at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia at 3:40pm on the 22nd of July 2014.

My thanks go to the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development for co-hosting this event today with UNDP.  

The 2013 UNAIDS report on HIV and AIDS in Asia and the Pacific shows that while important gains have been made in the region’s response to the epidemic, significant challenges remain. According to the report, an estimated 4.9 million people were living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific in 2012. 
Many countries in the region have laws, policies and practices which drive stigma and discrimination and hamper access to HIV services. For example, some 37 countries in the region criminalize some aspects of sex work, eighteen criminalize same sex behaviour, and eleven incarcerate injecting drug users in compulsory drug detention centres. All these measures hinder people from accessing HIV services. Some eleven countries, territories, and areas in Asia and Pacific still have in place some type of HIV-related restriction on entry, stay, and/or residence.

How, then, can these challenges be addressed? The evidence analysed by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law between 2010-2012 led it to conclude that a nation’s legal framework is of great importance in the effectiveness of its HIV response. Legal systems which encourage openness and transparency, promote comprehensive anti-discrimination codes, and treat consensual behaviour by adults in private as a matter beyond the reach of the criminal code tend to have much greater success in dealing effectively with HIV.
My experience in New Zealand’s Parliament, over 27.5 years, supports these findings. When I first took office, New Zealand’s statute book would not have been viewed favourably by the Global Commission.  But between 1981 and 2008, significant steps were taken:

  • Marital rape was criminalized in 1985; 
  • Consensual male sexual activity in private was decriminalized in 1986; 
  • The world’s first needle and syringe exchange programme was introduced in 1987; 
  • “Sexual orientation” and “disability” were added as grounds to the anti-discrimination legislation in 1993; 
  • In 2003, sex work was decriminalized; 
  • Civil union legislation passed in 2005; 
  • From 2006 the government agreed to observe a legal opinion that transgendered people were covered by anti-discrimination law; and
  • Prison inmates were given access to condoms on a systematic basis by 2007.

Since I left office, the reforms have continued.  The so-called ‘gay panic defence’ of provocation was abolished in 2009, and marriage equality was also achieved in 2013.
New Zealand’s adult HIV prevalence is extremely low by world standards. Although a complex range of factors no doubt applies to such comparisons, it is difficult not to credit the legislative environment for much of this success.  
Parliaments in other countries in the region have taken similar action to introduce rights-based legislation to strengthen responses to HIV/AIDS: 

  • In 2010, Fiji decriminalized sex between men, and in 2011 eliminated specific criminalization of HIV transmission or exposure.
  • In 2012, Viet Nam amended laws in order to bring an end to the compulsory detention of sex workers.
  • In 2013, Mongolia eliminated HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay, and residence, and amended other punitive laws, including criminalization of non-disclosure of HIV status.

There are parliamentary mechanisms which can be used by individual MPs to promote law reform;– for example, in some countries, private member’s bills or private member’s amendments to legislation. Other tools could include, depending on the nature of the parliament in question: notices of motion on the parliamentary order paper; questions to ministers – orally in the plenary and in committees, or in writing – about the state of the national HIV response; debates in the plenary; media releases and social media strategies; and coalition-building with like-minded colleagues in parliament and civil society to promote national dialogue.
When you as parliamentarians exercise your law-making, oversight, and representative powers and duties, I urge you to use all the tools at your disposal to help improve your countries’ national HIV responses.  It is through creative and courageous parliamentary actions, by government and opposition legislators, that we will be able to address the effects of HIV/AIDS in different countries.
UNDP, via our regional and Country Office networks, and in co-operation with other UN system colleagues, can support your efforts.  Already UNDP is engaging with parliaments in 68 countries around the world, eighteen of which are in the Asia-Pacific region. Around ten per cent of UNDP’s parliamentary development projects seek to engage parliamentarians on the issue of HIV –  in countries ranging from  Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, the Gambia, and Ethiopia in Africa, to Jamaica, Lebanon, Myanmar and Suriname. Specific activities include:  

  • Increasing MPs’ understanding of HIV;
  • Providing technical support for the drafting of legislation which ensures the protection and the rights of people living with HIV, in line with the recommendations of the Report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law;
  • Improving oversight and follow up on implementation of governments’ HIV policy;
  • Supporting committee work in the revision of existing policies/laws relating to HIV;
  • Developing HIV work-place policies for parliaments.

In Myanmar, for example, UNDP supported the legal review and national report which was developed on the impact of laws and policies on HIV, including access to health and HIV services for people living with HIV and for key affected populations. UNDP also supported the parliament in developing a “Quick Win” action plan which focuses on key priority areas, including the development of new guidance on HIV-related discrimination and confidentiality; universal antiretroviral access; reproductive rights of HIV-positive women; and access to affordable medicines. 

Addressing stigma and discrimination must also involve education, a responsible media, and engaged civil society.  But exercising legislative leadership is a critical way of achieving change, especially where the change may be controversial or unpopular. I look forward to a frank discussion today about where you see opportunities for beneficial HIV policy reform, and about the support you might need from UNDP to effect such change. We stand ready to support your efforts.

The International AIDS Conference, AIDS 2014, is being held in Melbourne, Australia, from July 20-25 as the world’s largest gathering of HIV researchers, policymakers, activists and people living with HIV.