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Exclusion of NGOs from AIDS meeting impacts information flow, silences important voices, says Human Rights Watch

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a Human Rights Watch press release:

UN: Open AIDS Meeting to All
General Assembly Should Reverse Ban on Human Rights and Sexual Health Groups

(New York, June 5, 2008) - The United Nations General Assembly should reverse its decision to exclude three human rights and sexual health nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from its June 10 high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS, a coalition of human rights groups and international AIDS organizations said today.

Assembly members Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Jamaica blocked the participation of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), and the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG).

According to a resolution passed last year, the president of the General Assembly was responsible for compiling a list of relevant civil society organizations, which member states reviewed and approved. The three organizations were initially included on the General Assembly president's list but denied accreditation after the General Assembly accepted their respective governments' objection to their participation.

"This meeting is about expanding access to HIV prevention and treatment," said Joe Amon, HIV/AIDS program director at Human Rights Watch. "It's hypocritical and counterproductive for UN member states to block organizations from attending who are working to ensure that HIV information and services are truly available to all."

The UN meeting is intended to review global progress made in the fight against AIDS. General Assembly meetings in 2001 and 2006 resulted in commitments by all member states to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic by 2010 and to achieve "universal access" to HIV prevention, care, and treatment. Greater involvement of civil society has been identified by the UN as a critical strategy to combat AIDS. In a resolution tabled late in 2007, civil society was specifically encouraged to be involved in this year's meeting.

"J-FLAG is extremely disappointed by this move," said Jason McFarlane, programme manager of J-FLAG. "The Jamaican government itself has acknowledged that homophobia is fuelling our HIV epidemic. Silencing J-FLAG - Jamaica's only LGBT organization - undermines Jamaica's efforts to combat HIV/AIDS."

This is not the first time that key human rights groups have been excluded from the UN high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS. The South African government caused an uproar in 2006 by excluding the internationally acclaimed group Treatment Action Campaign, which has challenged South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for past statements questioning the efficacy of anti-retroviral medicines.

"If the United Nations is to allow member states to exclude organizations, they should insist that the process be transparent," said Hossam Bahgat, director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "We applied for accreditation to attend the meeting along with dozens of other NGOs that we work with daily. All of these groups were approved while we were - without explanation - excluded."

Human rights groups and international AIDS organizations - including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO), and the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC) - joined the three excluded NGOs in appealing to the UN General Assembly to ensure that the rhetoric of "universal access" is matched with participation and inclusion, and to each individual government to withdraw their objections and allow representatives to attend the meeting.

"We are all in this fight together," said Samuel Matsikure, programmes manager for GALZ. "To succeed in the fight against AIDS we must come together. We can not allow governments to divide and exclude certain NGOs."

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