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KEYNOTE ADDRESS AT THE INTERNATIONAL AIDS CONFERENCE

It is an honour to be here today to share with you Australia’s experience of the fight against AIDS, and to reaffirm our commitment to human rights as the touchstone for its prevention and treatment.

Australia’s progress towards the elimination of AIDS demonstrates that human rights, human lives and human experiences are central to the global battle against this disease.

Today’s session, ‘Nothing about us without us’, is aptly named: policy makers cannot work to eliminate AIDS without recognising and prioritising the human reality of those it affects.

The fight against AIDS has been interwoven throughout its history with movements towards the recognition and promotion of human rights.

Across the world, the communities which HIV has hit the hardest are all too frequently victims of a myriad other forms of discrimination.

Indeed, Australia’s first AIDS diagnosis, in 1982, came at a time when homosexual sex was still a criminal activity in more than half of the country.

Already marginalised and isolated, we know the communities impacted by AIDS can easily be further discriminated against, locked out of the policy process and denied access to adequate medical care.

Too frequently, this has been the reality: prevention and treatment have been side-tracked by stigma, leaving the most vulnerable behind.

In Australia, however, a combination of determined activism and progressive, fact-based policymaking has meant that the human individuals most deeply impacted by this epidemic have consistently been central to the fight against it.

As infection rates began to increase in the early 1980s, the federal government committed to a range of preventive policies driven by the principle of harm minimisation and informed by consultation with affected communities. Many of these measures seemed radical at the time.

But they have proven to be crucial tools in preventing the spread of AIDS and improving the lives of those living with HIV.

Firstly, and most importantly, governments at every level dedicated themselves to real engagement with bodies representing the individuals directly impacted by AIDS.

Advocates for the LGBTIQ community, for sex workers and for intravenous drug users became part of the policy conversation, and the establishment of Parliamentary Liaison Groups for HIV and AIDS created space in the corridors of power for ongoing discussion with affected communities.

These conversations led to policies directly informed by the lived reality of those they were designed to protect. Anonymous, free HIV testing was made universally available.

The implementation of needle exchanges and methadone maintenance treatments, subsidised by the government, helped to prevent infection amongst intravenous drug users.

Education and awareness campaigns were informed by facts, and able to speak directly to those at the highest risk.

The history of AIDS prevention and treatment in Australia has been underwritten, too, by our firm commitment to universal, high quality healthcare.

The first Australian AIDS diagnosis came just two years before the introduction of a universally accessible, publicly funded medical insurance scheme, which allowed for subsidised access to crucial treatments.

I’m proud to be part of the Labor Party, the party responsible for the implementation of this system, which recognises that adequate healthcare is foundational to the enjoyment of human rights for all people.

I’m proud, too, that Australia continues to lead the world in providing accessible, affordable access to the treatment those living with HIV and AIDS need.

Just a few months ago, HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis was listed on the national Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme: with a simple prescription from a general practitioner, any Australian at risk of infection now has cheap and easy access to this potentially life-saving treatment.

Nevertheless, work remains to be done.

In Australia and throughout the world, the most vulnerable communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are diagnosed with new HIV infections at a rate more than double that of the non-Indigenous population – and that rate has increased over the last five years, as the rate of infection amongst non-Indigenous Australians has declined.

Refugees and asylum seekers, transgender people, individuals who are incarcerated or experiencing homelessness – all struggle to access the diagnosis and treatment which are crucial to successful management of this disease.

This problem is compounded across the Asia-Pacific, where over 5 million people are living with HIV and AIDS and there are 300 000 new infections every year.

Despite the continued existence of barriers to prevention and treatment within some communities, Australians at risk of infection are for the most part comparatively lucky: diagnosis is a swift process, and treatment is cheap and accessible.

For our neighbours, the reality is far starker. Papua New Guinea has the highest prevalence of AIDS in the Pacific; in Indonesia, AIDS-related deaths have increased by 68% since 2010.

In both countries, fewer than half of pregnant women living with HIV have access to prophylaxis or treatment, and hundreds of children are infected as a result.

This must not be allowed to continue.

Recognition and promotion of human rights has a crucial role to play in the fight against AIDS across the Asia-Pacific.

Ongoing discrimination against the communities most vulnerable to infection renders the implementation of educative and preventive measures next to impossible.

Discussions of safe sex cannot take place when public identification as a member of the LGBTIQ community could lead to your arrest; treatment for HIV is not an option when outreach work is criminalised and those who deliver it are subjected to campaigns of intimidation.

It is our responsibility as an international community to do something about this.

Acknowledgement of the fundamental rights to which all human beings are entitled without discrimination, and recognition that no health issue can be adequately prevented or treated while those rights are denied, must underpin our efforts to combat the spread of HIV.

So too must a commitment of resources by those of us with the capacity for generosity.

It is unacceptable that the world’s wealthiest nations continue to decrease aid intended for AIDS prevention and treatment to the least wealthy.

Australia is not exempt: it was very disappointing to learn of the recent disestablishment of our HIV/AIDS Asia Regional Program, which until 2014 represented one of our most significant harm reduction investments in the region, by our current government.

So I join with my Labor shadow ministers Catherine King, Penny Wong and Claire Moore to continue the fight to ensure that we do our part in the global fight against this disease.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to the scientists and clinicians whose work has helped Australia to lead the world in this area.

It is with great sadness that I note the recent passing of Professor David Cooper AO, whose dedication to preventing and treating HIV/AIDS saved countless lives.

Professor Cooper’s work laid foundations crucial to combating HIV now and into the future, and I our efforts as an international community should strive to do justice to his legacy.

Together, I hope that we can work to ensure that every individual – every human individual – has access to the support and the care they need to live in freedom and dignity. 

ENDS