In some ways Michael Kirby reminds me of Stephen Lewis; both are articulate, eloquent and fiercely passionate about people who are discriminated against because of HIV.
Lewis is a former Canadian politician, and past special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Kirby is a former Australian high court judge and on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
When Kirby spoke last night I was left with the same feeling I have when listening to Lewis, completely convinced that despite the hills in front of us, they are surmountable and it is possible to stand up, speak out and make a difference.
Kirby spoke as the Jonathan Mann lecturer for the opening session of AIDS 2014 on Sunday night.
He commented on the parallels between the death of AIDS researchers and activists en route to this conference on Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 and that of Jonathan Mann, whom the lecture is named for, dying in a plane crash en route to an AIDS conference in 1998.
“If only we laugh and sing and drink and struggle shoulder-to-should with them here tonight, but we all know that we cannot do those things. So we think of them and others who have suffered and others who have suffered through irrational unjust, destructive acts.”
He named Dwayne Jones, murdered in Montego Bay Jamaica – condemned for being gay. David Kato, a Uganada activist, killed for opposing the anti-homosexual law.
“The violence does not end and yet brave reformers stand up for the essential idea of equality.
“We think of sex workers, drug users, prisoners, transsexuals, the disabled people living with HIV. For them our conference theme of ‘No One Left Behind’ must often seem a cruel irony.”
But, he didn’t just talk about those people who are still struggling, but rather pointed fingers at those who caused the struggle. He said,
“in many countries leaders have tragically failed to embrace the paradoxes of AIDS. They have talked. They have received the subventions for antiretroviral drugs. But they have failed dismally to defend the human rights and lives of their own citizens it is beyond time for the adoption of initiatives by these leaders that work.
Without such reforms and without changing the global laws on intellectual property, people will die needlessly. It is as simple as that. Someone must tell those who will not act, the practical facts of life in our world. They cannot expect taxpayers in other countries to shell out, indefinitely, huge funds for antiretroviral drugs if they simply refuse to reform their own laws and policies to help their own citizens.”
At this point he stopped and a video played.
He said that Mickey Mouse in Fantasia shows the global state we are in now.
“Too many countries are leaving the tap running full pelt. To sweep up the flood with a solitary broom is not going to work. We must turn off the taps. And that will not happen without an embrace of the kind of laws and policies we have long adopted in Australia.”
Those are decriminalizing HIV, allowing for needle exchanges to continue, respecting people who are LGBTQ and creating programs for those at risk of becoming HIV positive. Kirby gives credit to Tony Abbott, the Australian PM, for standing up against pressures that would change those programs. Kirby also said he believes that Abbott can help further the cause of HIV with many political leaders resistant to change.
“Many of those who have left the taps of infection still open are more likely to listen to him than to others that talk a language that they abhor. Conservatives, you see, can be vital allies in the struggle against AIDS.”
Kirby captured what it meant to be at the 20th International AIDS Conference, taking into account the state of affairs in the world.
“We come to renew our commitment to ourselves, to our lost friends, and to the strategies that work: Rich and poor. Men and women. People living with HIV and those who love and support them. Religious and non-religious. Straight and gay. Liberals and conservatives. We are in this together.
To those who live with HIV, to those who have died of AIDS and to those who have died in the struggle to advance the principles of our Declaration, this Melbourne Conference should give a renewed commitment: To continue down the paradoxical path that has been shown to work. Never to allow the forces of cruelty and ignorance to deflect us. And never to be content whilst anyone is at risk of being left behind.”