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UNAIDS Head Worried by Rising Antigay Tide

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UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe leveled criticism Monday against laws that criminalize homosexuality, saying that punitive stances make it significantly more difficult for his agency to maintain progress in the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS.

Sidibe spoke at a luncheon for journalists Monday at the U.N. Foundation in New York City. He received the Outspoken Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission later that evening.

Declaring the AIDS epidemic to be "in transition," Sidibe noted substantial progress, saying that more than 4 million people were being treated for the disease worldwide today, compared to just 50,000 receiving treatment in South Africa five years ago. However, the agency head expressed worry about the increasing inability to reach marginalized groups such as gays, sex workers, and drug users, often because of laws that criminalize their behavior and drive them into the shadows.

"Unfortunately, there is a call for a growing normalization of response when we are facing a growing criminalization." said Sidibe. "It is unacceptable today to say that 85 countries still have laws which are criminalizing same-sex relations among others. Even seven of them have the death sentence for homosexual practice."

In countries such as China, Kenya, and Malawi, said Sidibe, around 33% of new HIV infections occur in men who have sex with men. He said that in the United States, more than 50% of new HIV infections last year occurred among gay populations, and the rates were even higher for people under age 25, who represent about 44% of new HIV infections worldwide.

Sidibe commended new moves in China as an example of the "pragmatism" that will help lower infection rates in the future. The country has adopted evidence-based and inclusive policy reform that shuns a punitive approach, while encouraging government ministries to work synergistically and fostering open debate.

"I like the pragmatism of the Chinese government," he said. "Today, they are one of the most progressive programs in Asia."

Sidibe said he hopes China's behavior can influence major trading partners in Africa. Efforts to overturn British colonial-era laws that criminalize homosexuality and to fight new proposals like the death penalty for gays in Uganda are major challenges facing UNAIDS in the developing world, he said.

"We are in a situation today which makes me very scared," said Sidibe. "At the same time, we are claiming for universal access and trying to scale up our program, that's where we are seeing bad laws being introduced by countries making people not have access to services. We cannot accept what I am saying, the tyranny of the majority. We must insist that the rights of minorities are upheld. If we don't do that, I think the epidemic will grow again," he said.

Sidibe said he anticipates progress on the decriminalization of homosexuality this July at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, bolstered by moves like the Delhi high court decision that struck down the sodomy law in India last year, and a law passed last month to decriminalize homosexuality in Fiji.

"I think Vienna is not the General Assembly, so Vienna is an international meeting which has always been helping us to make a shift," he said, recalling negotiations that lowered the price of AIDS drugs at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

On the particular case of Uganda, Sidibe called the proposed law "unacceptable" and "shocking" for a country that had been one of the most progressive in dealing with HIV.

"You have economic issues, but you have also a growing conservatism that is making me very scared," he said. "Where we have a little space for offering political and social changes which has been started even a few years ago, we are seeing that being reversed in the name of what, I don't know."

Saying that UNAIDS was "pushing, writing and communicating" with officials in Uganda about the bill, Sidibe projected that the measure would be thwarted. He credited pressure from the United States, the United Kingdom, a recent op-ed in The Washington Post from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and even statements against the bill from Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren.

As for the increasingly strident antigay statements of Uganda minister Martin Ssempa, a former ally of Warren and chief proponent of the bill who has gone so far as to screen gay pornography in churches, Sidibe attributed his behavior to domestic politics.

"Sometimes, you have an internal rationale which you don't understand and a political momentum, why things are happening like that," he said. "Sometimes, you are in a period of election so you have a change happening in many of those countries where you can see conservative positions for which reasons you don't understand."

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