Our voice at the UN: turning paper into practice

The United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting (HLM) on Ending AIDS takes place from 8-10 June.

Javier UNJavier Hourcade Bellocq, Latin America and Caribbean regional representative for International HIV/AIDS Alliance, was invited to be part of the Stakeholder Task Force, a group of civil society representatives advising the Office of the President of the General Assembly on how better to engage civil society in the process of the HLM.

Here, he gives his impressions of the process so far and tells of his hopes for the final political declaration from the meeting.

How receptive have you found the UN to be to the Taskforce’s work?

“There are many people in the UN family, and the majority of them, including the Office of the President of the General Assembly, truly believe in a better way to do UN processes with meaningful engagement with civil society. But the people who make decisions are member states and there are a significant number of member states who are not very accepting of civil society in general. And there are many too that are not accepting of key populations such as drug users, sex workers, transgender and gay people etc.

“So when we advised the President of the General Assembly about the Civil Society Hearing it was not difficult. But when it came to advising names for people who will be sharing panels for sessions with UN member-state representatives and ministers, it was quite painful at times.

“In addition to the very concrete advisory role in the HLM, the behind-the-scenes work the Alliance has been doing –  working in a parallel world of NGOs [non-governmental organisations], civil society and networks – has been both meaningful and powerful. For the past month, civil society organisations like us have been in contact with stakeholders in the capitals, plus the missions in New York and civil society, and have played a very interesting, important role.”

Are you confident that in this way all of the civil society voices that need to be heard are being heard for the HLM? 

“Since 2001 and the first UN General Assembly on AIDS, we’ve been getting better at building teams of civil society organisations and regional and global networks to ensure that the voices of more vulnerable and criminalised populations have been heard or make it into the language of declarations. Most voices do get heard in this way.

“Some of the most affected populations may not necessarily be directly heard. For example, consider female sex workers who don’t speak English or have access to the UN processes and discussions. Their voice may not necessarily be directly heard, but because of how the Alliance works with networks of sex workers, the sex workers project has been discussed. Part of the job of the Stakeholder Task Force and all activists like the Alliance has been to bring all voices into the document. We did our best.”

How do you feel about the zero draft document that has been produced?

“The zero draft that’s been produced by the two facilitators from Switzerland and Zambia is the perfect draft. In my opinion, it’s like it was written by an NGO. If we could approve it, I’d do it immediately. Of course there are things that can be said better, but we’ve starting with a very good and powerful draft.”

What are the main stumbling blocks in turning the zero draft into a final political declaration?

“We’ve had three HLMs already on HIV/AIDS and we know where the obstacles are. They don’t change that much, or in how they operate. That’s why the political declaration is still in negotiation. It went from 15 pages to 60 in a second draft, becoming a huge track-changed document going back and forwards like a ping-pong game playing with words.

It doesn't matter if it's a piece of paper with amazing or lousy language - everything depends on what people do with the document back home in their countries or communities

“We know Russia is going to be pushing back on non-criminalisation of drug users, harm reduction, and basic things such as needle exchange and substitution therapy. Some countries in Africa will be against the language of key populations: gay, MSM [men who have sex with men], sex workers and transgender people. These are the member states who play the bad guys. But generally, I feel confident that this HLM will be a step forward.

“At the end of the day though I’m conscious that this is a piece of paper; and it’s a piece of paper with amazing or lousy language – it doesn’t matter. After the 10th June everything depends on what people do with the document back home in their countries or communities when they do policy and advocacy work. For example, very soon after the HLM is the International AIDS Conference. This is a high-profile opportunity where we can pull out of the political declaration the things that must be discussed among the main global stakeholders of HIV/AIDS.”

Where do your main hopes lie for the HLM?

“After the 2001 Special General Assembly on AIDS, in 2002 came the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. This HLM comes as we are in the middle of the replenishment process of that Fund. We need to use this opportunity to ask for an advance cheque. We know we have 85% of the answers on how to end the AIDS epidemic, but we don’t have the resources for the last big push.

“We’re asking for US$23bn a year investment in AIDS, with about 20% of that going through civil society for civil society interventions, advocacy, monitoring, etc. There is enough evidence showing that the rich and middle-income countries of the world do have those resources for HIV and AIDS. What is lacking is political commitment.

“UNAIDS are without money, international NGOs have huge funding gaps. If we can’t use the HLM – aside from all this playing with language – to corner the people who really have the resources to take the next serious funding step, we are in trouble. That’s what keeps me awake at night.”