Magazine article UN Chronicle

HIV/AIDS and Human Rights in Russia: Landmark Conference in St. Petersburg

Magazine article UN Chronicle

HIV/AIDS and Human Rights in Russia: Landmark Conference in St. Petersburg

Article excerpt

THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE to address the issues of HIV/AIDS and human rights in the Russian Federation took place in St. Petersburg, from 19 to 21 October 2005. Co-sponsored by Bard College, Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and its Gagarin Center for Human Rights, and Saint Petersburg State University (SPbU), the conference brought together for intensive dialogue and discussion, over 300 participants and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), consisting of experts, scholars, activists and practitioners from all over the world.

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Held at the Tavrichesky Palace--a national landmark considered to be the birthplace of Russian democracy since it is where the first Russian Duma was convened--the conference was one of many activities in 2005 to honour the United Nations sixtieth anniversary. The meeting's goal was to explore opportunities and challenges posed by the double imperatives of halting the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as well as defending the rights of those whose lives it touches. Participants also discussed some of the most urgent questions that must be tackled by social and human sciences, such as: "What exactly should we know in order to fight the disease effectively, and how do we prevent violations of fundamental human rights?"

The Conference marked the first time that people living with HIV/AIDS in the Russian Federation and groups representing their interests were able to gain a serious hearing of their concerns from a gathering of this magnitude. The fact that it was co-sponsored by one of Russia's leading universities provided a unique opportunity to begin to examine the current knowledge-base and to advance a research agenda that would address social issues crucial to understanding the state of the epidemic and the most effective means of addressing it.

The conference consisted of keynote speeches, debate, dialogues, and workshops, as well as six panel discussions entitled: Frameworks, Knowledge, and Critiques; Law and Policy I--Vulnerable Groups; Law and Policy II--Testing and Treatment Rights and Ethical Issues (Options and Obstacles); Prospects for a Research Agenda: Creation and Dissemination of Knowledge on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; Public Awareness: Education and Media; and Perspectives for the Future. What is the Role of Human Rights at Key Points for Intervention?

Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Director of the Department of HIV/AIDS of the World Health Organization (WHO) delivered the opening address, and Liudmila Alexeeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and one of Russia's most revered human rights campaigners, made the closing speech. Dr. Michael Kazatchkine, France's Ambassador on AIDS and Transmissible Diseases and Vice Chairman of the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, gave an important plenary address on "The Role of Human Rights in the Fight to Prevent, Control and Treat HIV/AIDS".

The debate/dialogue format of the conference allowed participants to discuss some controversial issues from contrasting perspectives without prejudice. Internationally renowned journalist Vladimir Pozner chaired a dialogue on "The Role of Human Rights Law and Legislation in Combating the HIV/AIDS Epidemic", which featured Open Society Institute (OSI) President Aryeh Neier, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union and an expert on legal rights. Participants engaged in a strikingly lively and controversial debate with lawyers from St. Petersburg and Ukraine.

UN agencies, such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Moscow office, made important contributions to the realization of the conference goals. Bertil Lindblad, UNAIDS country coordinator, moderated the keynote speech with Dr. Kim, while Sergey Smirnov of UNESCO Moscow made a valuable contribution to the panel discussion on "Testing and Treatment Rights and Ethical Issues (Options and Obstacles)". …

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