The world’s largest international AIDS conference concludes today in Washington, D.C. It was the first time in 22 years that the United States hosted the conference, due to the Obama administration’s reversal of a two-decade ban that prevented people infected with HIV from entering the country. We speak to Stephen Lewis, co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World. From 2001 to 2006, he served as the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He is the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis warns more money needs to be spent on the fight against AIDS. “We’re always struggling for the crumbs and the pennies from the table [for global public health], when we know the amounts of money that are available for other and more perverse purposes internationally. And that, too, has to end,” Lewis says. “The international Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is in financial trouble, because a number of the donor nations are not fulfilling the commitments they made, so that the next round of grants has been significantly curtailed. And that is being felt perilously at country level. I mean, if we don’t get the drugs, people will die. It’s a pretty strong equation.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting from Baltimore, Maryland, not far from where the world’s largest international AIDS conference concludes today in Washington, D.C. It was the first time in 22 years that the United States hosted the conference, due to the Obama administration’s reversal of a two-decade ban that prevented people infected with HIV from entering the country. Over 20,000 people from around the world, including top scientists, diplomats, activists and celebrities, convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss the ongoing AIDS epidemic, lingering cultural stigma, and cutting-edge medical advances.
Today, the AIDS epidemic continues to affect more than 34 million people worldwide, of which over two million are children under the age of 15. According to the United Nations, there were 1.7 million AIDS-related deaths last year, down from 2.3 million in 2005.
On Wednesday, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi addressed the conference as the new president of the International AIDS Society. She won the 2008 Nobel [Prize] for Medicine for her role in identifying HIV. She vowed to help make the benefits of scientific research on HIV more readily available across the world.
FRANÇOISE BARRÉ-SINOUSSI: From me as a scientist, it’s unacceptable that all what science is delivering for the benefit of patient is not implemented and made available for the benefit of all people in the world. So I promise that I will, as the president of the IAS and a Nobel Prize laureate, to be the voice of everyone in the world, to take the responsibility for continuously advocating for the right to an evidence-based response to HIV for all the population affected by HIV.
AMY GOODMAN: As thousands gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss HIV and AIDS, the voices of many of those most affected by the global epidemic have been excluded. That’s because U.S. travel restrictions bar foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the United States unless they can obtain a waiver. In response, sex workers set up an alternative conference in Kolkata, India, and drug users set up a similar conference in Kiev, Ukraine.
For more, we’re going to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Stephen Lewis, co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World. From 2001 to 2006, he served as the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He’s the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Stephen Lewis. As the international conference comes to an end in Washington, D.C., what has come out of it, and what do you think most needs to happen?
STEPHEN LEWIS: I think the brief excerpts from the interviews, Amy, is a good glimpse into the nature of the conference. You had a lot of inevitable cheerleading and self-congratulation about the progress that has been made. But I think Françoise put it best in pointing a finger at the enormous amount of work yet to be done and the importance of not resting on the laurels—there was far too much of that, many of us felt—but the need to recognize that you do have 33 or 34 million people who will have to be on treatment, you do have this two-and-a-half million children who are not being treated now and are between the ages of six and 15, you have hundreds of thousands of children still being born HIV-positive every year. You have a—you have a loss of the human dimension of the pandemic, of orphans and of grandmothers and the turmoil at community level, and far too much focus, I think, on the statistical data and on the commodities to be used and not enough on the tremendous human carnage which occurred and which must be somehow subdued.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the greatest obstacle right now? I mean, you were—you represented your country at the United Nations, then the U.N. and Africa dealing with HIV/AIDS. What are the major obstacles to dealing with this pandemic, Stephen Lewis?
STEPHEN LEWIS: I think perhaps three or four in number. There are people who can speak to it more knowledgeably than can I. But, number one, the resources are an enormous worry. The international Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is in financial trouble, because a number of the donor nations are not fulfilling the commitments they made, so that the next round of grants has been significantly curtailed. And that is being felt perilously at country level. I mean, if we don’t get the drugs, people will die. It’s a pretty strong equation.
Number two, we’re just beginning to understand the need to deal with the so-called key populations, the high-risk groups, with real focus, whether it’s men having sex with men or sex workers or injecting drug users or prison populations. Those are areas where the virus is transmitted and spreads. And in a place like the Russian Federation and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, those are the explosive areas in the virus at the moment, and there isn’t enough attention being paid to that. And a government like the government of Putin in Russia is entirely indifferent to the tremendous needs of the injecting drug use population.
Number three, we have now understood that treatment is prevention, and therefore, rolling out treatment to the most vigorous extent possible around the world is necessary. And we’ve got to overcome the phenomenon, which Françoise pointed out in her speech, the terrible double standard, where here, for example, in the United States, you start treating people almost immediately, whatever their immune system count shows them to be at, and in the rest of the world you wait until people are far more sick before they get treatment, and many of them simply don’t survive. We have to have an objective, similar regimen across the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Lewis, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim spoke at the opening session of the AIDS conference. Let’s turn to a clip.
JIM YONG KIM: I’m here because I know what this movement is capable of achieving. I’m here to bring you both a pledge and a challenge. I pledge that the World Bank will work tirelessly with all of you here to drive the AIDS fight forward until we win. And I challenge you to join me in harnessing the moral power and practical lessons that the AIDS movement has produced to speed progress against that other global scourge: poverty.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. He is one of the founders of Partners in Health with Dr. Paul Farmer and was the former president of Dartmouth. Stephen Lewis, this issue of movements? Stephen Lewis, the whole issue of the AIDS activism and movements—
STEPHEN LEWIS: Oh, I—
AMY GOODMAN: —and how important it is in dealing with the AIDS pandemic?
STEPHEN LEWIS: I’m sorry. I want to say, Amy, that I thought that Jim Kim’s speech at the opening was perhaps the most substantial speech that was delivered, and it was a tremendously refreshing sense to get a new president of the World Bank talking so feelingly about the pandemic, on one hand, and poverty, on the other. And he’s right: the extraordinary activism of the AIDS movement over the last number of years is what has turned the tide—if the tide has been turned. And if they can now be enjoined to deal with poverty as they dealt with disease, then the—you know, the options are greatly improved. And if you, finally, have a president of the World Bank who understands the meaning of poverty and disease—and this was, I think, a remarkably good appointment—then there is some hope in the wind. But we have to get away from the sort of public relations to which we’re now addicted, the sloganeering, and do the hard work on the ground, which can be led by the activists.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the president of the World Bank going. What about the president of the United States? I mean, this is taking place in Washington, D.C., Stephen Lewis. President Obama did not address the conference.
STEPHEN LEWIS: No, and obviously there was grievous disappointment about that. Naturally, everybody felt that he would. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton came and made a notable speech. Both Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, back in December—November of last year, made very, very strong statements on achieving an AIDS-free generation. There emerged from the United States the kind of language that had never emerged before. Whether or not that will be consistently supported by the resources which are required and the political leadership which is required, only time will tell. But certainly it was, on balance, more hopeful.
On the other hand, the fact that the United States would not allow sex workers and injecting drug users into this conference in the numbers that should have been available and given us the opportunity to deal with those high-risk groups much more usefully, that suggests that there are still very significant problems in the United States. And the widespread criminalization of transmission in the United States—and, by the way, even worse in my country of Canada—largely directed at gay men, this is yet another cultural prejudice, which is definitely inhibiting the end of the pandemic.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Lewis, I want to turn to a clip of Dr. Robert Carr, international human rights activist who worked tirelessly to defend the health and human rights of people living with HIV and people at risk of the disease. In May of last year, he died at his home in Toronto, where he worked as the director of policy and advocacy with the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations. I want to go to the clip, a part of a speech he gave in Vienna in 2010 at a meeting of the Global Forum on Men Who Have Sex with Men. In the speech, he talks about holding global institutions accountable for ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
DR. ROBERT CARR: As in the Caribbean, we talk about spinning a top in mud, we have got to stop letting people give us the short end of the stick. We have to confront them. We have to say, “Enough is enough.” And we have to hold the institutions, the donor institutions, the bilateral institutions, the U.N., to account about whether or not all of this money and all of this effort and all of this rhetoric about human rights is actually making a difference for communities on the ground in the countries where the epidemic is raging.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Robert Carr, leading Caribbean researcher, activist. You gave the Robert Carr lecture at the international conference this week, Stephen Lewis.
STEPHEN LEWIS: Yes. Robert was an extraordinary person, almost a phenomenon in his capacity to analyze, on the one hand, and to confront authority, on the other. He was not a dispassionate activist: he was engaged. And the point he makes, I think, is unassailable. There is so much rhetoric—that’s what I meant at the beginning of this conversation. There is so much rhetorical flimflam over the achievements and the promises and the undertakings, and such a gap between the rhetoric and the implementation, that it drove people like Robert to distraction. And he wanted the organizations within the U.N. and beyond to be held accountable. They are so powerful. They are so often impervious to criticism. They are so undignified in the way in which they dismiss the critics. And Robert was at his wit’s end, because the human rights, which were constantly invoked around men who have sex with men, never demonstrated themselves on the ground at community level, where treatment was provided, where homophobic laws were expunged from the legislation in a country, where there was much greater sense of tolerance and involvement. And Robert was right to put it very strongly. That was a quite memorable speech.
AMY GOODMAN: Bharati Dey participated in the protest in Kolkata against the exclusion of sex workers from the AIDS conference in Washington, D.C. Speaking to NDTV in India, Bharati Dey explains why the conference and protest were organized. She is a sex worker activist with the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee.
BHARATI DEY: [translated] The U.S. government is against sex workers. The U.S. government does not give visas to sex workers. If we say we’re not sex workers, if we say we’re social workers or something like that, we’d get a visa. But sex workers who want to fight for their work, their rights, for the rights of their work, who have been fighting for 20 years, why should we now deny we’re sex workers just to go to the U.S.? So we said we’re sex workers, and Washington didn’t give us visas. So that’s why we wanted to challenge the D.C. conference by holding a parallel HIV conference in Kolkata. No girl from any state in India could go to that conference, so we thought, if not in Washington, we’ll invite everyone to India to Kolkata.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Bharati Dey speaking from Kolkata. Stephen Lewis, we just have 30 seconds, but you also addressed the world fund. In the final seconds we have, talking about the trillions of dollars that traverse the globe for bank bailouts, for wars, but what about for dealing with an AIDS-free world?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Well, there’s never a smidgen of that money available, Amy, for global public health. We’re always struggling for the crumbs and the pennies from the table, when we know the amounts of money that are available for other and more perverse purposes internationally. And that, too, has to end. And there, we need voices in the G8, like those of President Obama, to say everything is distorted, the priorities are wrong, the human imperative is what should count, and we’re making a grave mistake in our priorities.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Lewis, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World, was Canada’s ambassador to the U.N. and served as the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. And I want to congratulate you on the birth of your grandson, Toma. Congratulations also to your son, Avi Lewis, and your daughter-in-law, Naomi Klein. Thanks you so much, Stephen.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the first person believed to be totally cured of AIDS. He’s called the “Berlin patient.” He joins us live on Democracy Now! Stay with us.