Is the Commonweath ready for an Aids-free generation?

Last week the European Parliament agreed on a new law to provide specific assistance and protection to people who suffer crime because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or, in a first for EU law, gender expression.

Can we expect the Commonwealth to adopt such a progressive approach on HIV and human rights issues? The annual meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, coming up soon in New York, normally attracts attention for its economic and political agenda. But among the HIV/Aids community, populations vulnerable to the infection and human rights activists, concern is centered on the fate of certain recommendations relating to the Commonwealth’s legal reform process.

According to the International HIV/Aids Alliance, for whom I act as a Trustee, the 54 Commonwealth countries account for 30 per cent of the world’s population and for 60 per cent of global HIV prevalence which shows the disproportionate nature of risk factors present in these societies. Evidence has proved that much of the HIV-related transmission occurs among sex workers and their clients, men who have sex with men (MSM), the transgender community and people who inject drugs.

Evidence has also shown that without engaging with these populations with prevention and treatment services, new HIV infections will not be brought down. This is true too of hyper epidemic countries in Africa as a substantial share of new infections occurs among these vulnerable groups. Vulnerable populations do not exist in isolation but are intrinsically linked socially and sexually with the general population creating an epidemiological link between different sections of society.

While some Commonwealth countries have seen a steady decline in new infections in the past few years, it is not fast enough to turn the Aids epidemic around and stop its spread. Many will fail to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) six of halting and reversing the epidemic by 2015.

A serious obstacle for reducing infection rates among vulnerable communities is the adverse legal environment they face which criminalises their behaviour and makes them a target for harassment and violence at the hands of law enforcers in most Commonwealth countries. All but six of these countries still classify same sex conduct as illegal. Since the first UN General Assembly Special Session on Aids the international community and UN member states have repeatedly called for amendment of laws that criminalise the behaviour of vulnerable populations to protect their human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular access to health care and legal protection. But very little progress on reform has been reported from many Commonwealth countries in the last decade.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law recently presented incontrovertible evidence that criminalization enhances HIV-related risks among men who have sex with men and transgender populations in Commonwealth countries. In Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, one in four MSM are infected with HIV while in non-Commonwealth countries the ratio is one to fifteen.

Section 377 stands for criminalization of same sex relations in most of the penal laws of Commonwealth countries of Asia. Transgender people are denied acknowledgement as legal persons and their gender is unrecognized. Acts of sexist violence are committed against them while police stand by. Sex work is criminalized in most of the Commonwealth countries despite compelling evidence that sex workers are 14 times more vulnerable to HIV than other women.  When it comes to drug policy, laws do not differentiate between a drug user and drug trafficker and the war on drug campaigns too often end up as a war on drug users.

The Commission has called upon governments to take immediate action to repeal or amend outdated legislations criminalizing HIV transmission and the behaviours of vulnerable populations. Police and law enforcement machinery must be reined in and asked to protect human rights and guarantee access to HIV-related prevention, treatment and care

The report received strong endorsement from the UN Secretary-General, the heads of UNDP and UNAIDS and many civil society organisations around the world who called for a time bound implementation of the Commission recommendations.

In this context, the upcoming meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers assumes great significance. Following the Perth meeting of the Heads of Governments of Commonwealth (CHOGM) countries last year, a Ministerial Task Force was asked to develop 44 recommendations and present them for approval. Some have great social relevance like the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede an effective response to the HIV epidemic and the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.

Whether these recommendations actually make their way into the discussions is another matter.  Civil society organisations and vulnerable communities within the Commonwealth are concerned that the Aids agenda risks being put on the back burner at a time when determined action by these countries could lead us towards an Aids-free generation.

There is still time for the Commonwealth to lead by example and take decisive action to address the legal and structural barriers currently impeding the global HIV response, thereby changing the course of the epidemic once and for all.

Prasada Rao is the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Aids in the Asia Pacific region. He is former Permanent Secretary for Health and Family Welfare in Government of India and former Regional Director of UNAIDS in Asia and the Pacific. He is also a Trustee of the International HIV/Aids Alliance which works to support community action on HIV and AIDS in developing countries.

Sex workers chat to outreach workers at an outdoor café during a street shift in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photograph: International HIV/AIDS Alliance
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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.