Why Did AIDS Activists Go to Geneva to Cite U.S. HIV/AIDS Policies as a Form of Racial Discrimination?

This past summer, a national coalition of HIV/AIDS activists in the United States borrowed a page from the civil rights playbook by asking the United Nations to pressure the U.S. to address high and rising rates of HIV in communities of color. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that although African Americans represent just 12 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for approximately 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2010. The new infection rate was also significantly higher among Latinos/Latinas than it was in white people. The CDC also reported increasing infections among black gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM), and transgender women.

Based on these statistics, as well as ongoing work in communities affected by HIV/AIDS, the coalition authored a report that claims lack of action against the effects of criminalization, poverty and race on HIV/AIDS in U.S. communities of color constitutes human rights violations against those communities.

Suraj Madoori of HIV Prevention Justice Alliance
Suraj Madoori of HIV Prevention Justice Alliance

The effort was led by Suraj Madoori, manager of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV PJA) at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC).

At the end of June 2014, Madoori was researching human rights mechanisms that could address the ways that poverty and criminalization affect people living with or vulnerable to contracting HIV. He discovered that the U.S. had signed and ratified very few international human rights treaties, but that one of them -- the Convention of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) -- was up for review in August 2014, requiring the U.S. to submit a report detailing how it addresses racial disparities.

As part of the original Convention, the U.S. stated that it would "address disparities in HIV prevention and care involving racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized populations." The U.S. CERD report to the United Nations cited that the government is relying on the Affordable Care Act and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) -- a plan created in 2010 that established a five-year road map with clear and measurable targets to be achieved by 2015 -- as its strategy for addressing racial disparities in HIV prevention and care. But Madoori and other HIV/AIDS activists on the ground understood that the U.S. would likely fall short of the NHAS goals, which were established without commensurate increases in federal resources.

Kenyon Farrow of Treatment Action Group (TAG)
Kenyon Farrow of Treatment Action Group (TAG)

Madoori first reached out to Kenyon Farrow, the U.S. & Global Health Policy Director with Treatment Action Group (TAG). Farrow had previously participated in CERD when he was the southern region coordinator for Critical Resistance. The group used the CERD process to report on Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Madoori traveled to Geneva to present the report to human rights experts from around the world at the CERD panel, hoping that racial discrimination as it relates to HIV/AIDS in the U.S. would be addressed in the concluding observations of the CERD panel.

However, the issue was not included in the concluding observations of the panel. The advocates say that one likely reason for the oversight is that the CERD panel met in the immediate wake of Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Missouri, and the delegation that reported on the ties between racial discrimination and police brutality received a great deal of deserved attention. Farrow adds, "It was also the first time the CERD heard from the HIV/AIDS community about the epidemic. It takes time to integrate the information."

Still, the activists make a case for the value of their tactic. Farrow says, "Despite the U.S. refusal to sign various global treaties, it is important for activists to use whatever means are at our disposal -- including public embarrassment of the U.S. -- to fight all forms of discrimination."

The concluding observations do address structural issues that affect the HIV epidemic in the U.S., including a recommendation that the U.S. "take concrete measures to ensure that all individuals, and in particular racial and ethnic minorities who reside in states that have opted out of the ACA, undocumented immigrants, and immigrants and their families who have been residing lawfully in the United States for less than five years, have effective access to affordable and adequate health care services."

Another CERD-focused report coordinated by U.S. advocates, Reproductive Injustice: Racial and Gender Discrimination in U.S. Health Care, integrated HIV issues into its findings. While its HIV-specific points did not make it into the concluding observations, the CERD report recommends that the U.S. eliminate racial disparities in sexual and reproductive health.

As strategic as it is to use the U.N. mechanism to put pressure on the U.S., Madoori says that success in Geneva is only as strong as organizing at home.

"If we want to make a difference in our communities, and we try to use the U.N. to pressure the U.S. government, it can't just be 10 people who think it's important. We have to be strong on the ground, to let them know that this is an additional tactic -- that when we frame HIV/AIDS as a human rights issue, we also have the strength to hold the U.S. accountable to it."

Jenny Levison is a writer and social justice activist whose work focuses primarily in the areas of immigrant rights and racial equality, economic justice, disability rights, LGBTQ equity, and counter-white nationalism. Her documentary film with Joshua Waletzky, Parting the Waters_, about race and segregation through the lens of the American swimming pool, will be forthcoming in 2015._