Human rights and HIV in the Middle East and North Africa

Since 2011 the Alliance has been working with UNAIDS to strengthen human rights-based responses to HIV at a national level. A review of National Strategic Plans (NSPs) in over 40 countries in East and Southern Africa; the Middle East and North Africa; and the Asia/Pacific regions confirmed that much work still needs to be done to turn these commitments into reality for those who most need it.

Following the review, the Alliance and UNAIDS brought together government representatives and civil society members from 35 countries in three regional workshops. The workshops took a practical approach, focussing on the ‘how to’ of including human rights in the national strategic planning cycle; situation and response analysis; programmatic activities; budgets; and in NSP monitoring and evaluation frameworks.

Participants from government and civil society worked together to draw up country action plans for each of the 35 participating countries. For the Middle East and North Africa region, a workshop entitled the Saudi Forum on Uniting Arab Countries to Fight AIDS was held in Riyadh in November 2011, and resulted in the Arab AIDS Initiative, an unprecedented policy development. Following a series of consultations and advocacy efforts led by UNAIDS, including the Gulf Cooperating Council Initiative on HIV and AIDS, and strategic partnership with the League of Arab States, the Saudi Forum made specific recommendations on human rights. These were officially endorsed at the high-level meeting of the Council of the Arab Ministers of Health (Amman, March 2012) and led to the launch of the Arab AIDS Initiative.

This initiative is of great political significance. The Council of the Arab Ministers of Health is a high-level political forum in the Arab region, representing all 22 ministers of the League of Arab States, and it is noteworthy that all the recommendations of the Saudi Forum were agreed.

The Arab AIDS Initiative aims to accelerate national and regional AIDS responses to achieve the targets set in the 2011 Political Declaration on AIDS. The next steps in this development are the formulation of a rights-based Arab AIDS strategy (2013–2015) under the umbrella of the League of Arab States, and the creation of a technical committee on HIV/AIDS to monitor the development and implementation of this strategy. UNAIDS, the League of Arab States and Saudi Arabia have developed a roadmap on the strategy development process that will be monitored by the technical committee.

This initiative represents a growing partnership between UNAIDS and the League of Arab States. It comes in the wake of another important initiative, the Arab Convention on HIV Prevention and Protection of the Rights of People Living with HIV, which was adopted in early 2012 by the regional Arab parliament. The Arab AIDS Initiative is a prime example of increasing political commitment by the Arab League to a rights-based approach to HIV.

“The Arab AIDS Initiative also demonstrates how it is possible to address human rights not only as a notion but in concrete programmes and strategies that are politically and culturally acceptable” said Mrs Hind Khatib-Othman, former director, UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Middle East.

© Nell Freeman for the Alliance

Much work still needs to be done to turn commitments into reality.