Outcry over ban of LGBT groups from global AIDS conference

Gay pride demonstration in Toulouse, France. (Credit: Guillaume Paumier/Flickr)

Human rights advocates from major Western nations and organizations are protesting against a United Nations decision to bar 22 LGBT-affiliated groups from taking part in a high-level U.N. AIDS conference next month.

Because the 193-member U.N. General Assembly operates by consensus, the countries calling for the ban  – Russia, Tanzania and 52 countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – aren’t required to give an explanation. But many see the move as blatant discrimination against groups that represent some of the communities most strongly affected by HIV/AIDS.

“The NGOs that have been singled out for exclusion appear to have been chosen for their involvement in LGBTI, transgender or youth advocacy,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power wrote in a letter to General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft earlier this month.

“Given that transgender people are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population, their exclusion from the high level meeting will only impede global progress in combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic and achieving the goal of an AIDS-free generation.”

According to the Guardian, the European Union and Canada have also written to Lykketoft to register their concerns.

Lykketoft’s office had negotiated with countries to remove some earlier objections, the New York Times reported, which reduced the number of groups blocked from 39. Still, the remaining 22 organizations are barred from taking part in the conference. Of the excluded groups, 16 will be attending as part of the delegations of other accredited organizations, according to the report.

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In a text message exchange with the New York Times, Lykketoft also said: “We have done our utmost to include as many of the NGOs as possible. Unfortunately it is not within my mandate to overrule objections by the member states or to make the objecting countries known to the public.”

For its part, the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has asked for full inclusion and participation in the three-day conference, which begins on June 8.

“It is crucial that the voices and perspectives of individuals and organizations be heard…” the organization said in a statement, “…including the voices of people living with HIV and people most affected by the epidemic, including women and girls, sex workers, people who use drugs, gay men and other men who have sex with men and transgender people.”

“Nongovernmental organizations working on the ground to ensure that no one is left behind must have the opportunity to contribute to this important forum.”

The 22 groups have also received unwavering support from many Western governments and NGOs, such as the American Jewish World Service, which said in a statement: “…these organizations have been critical players in addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis for over 35 years. They cannot be silenced, and we are proud to support their efforts.”

LGBT representation at the U.N. has been a point of controversy for years. In 2014, Russia, with the support of 43 other states, unsuccessfully tried to overturn a ruling by the U.N. that recognized all same-sex marriages of its staff. This February, six new U.N. stamps promoting LGBT equality were met with furious backlash, mostly from Russia and the 54 members of the African Group.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has consistently pushed for LGBT rights, but has faced frequent opposition from Russia, China, and many African, Arab and Islamic states.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com