Cameron to African leaders: End stigma against gays

Edwin Cameron
Justice Edwin Cameron. Photo courtesy of Community Media Trust.
Edwin Cameron

This is an edited transcript of a speech by Judge Edwin Cameron on 28 June at the UNAIDS/LANCET Commissioners Dinner in Malawi. Cameron criticised stigmatising laws that hamper the response to HIV.

It’s an honor for me to be here with you this evening. I feel particularly privileged that President Banda of Malawi has asked me to be part of this commission and has given me the singular honor of making a few remarks here this evening. I want to pay tribute to the president for her initiative in accepting the chairmanship of this commission and for initiative in calling us to your lovely country. I also want to pay honor to former Chief Justice, Richard Banda. I value you as a colleague sir, and I pay my respects to you.

I have a few moments to make remarks and I’ve thought very carefully about how to address them because I don’t want to speak about statistics or figures or models. I want to speak about emotions. And the first emotion that I want to start with is the emotion of grief. I also want to speak about the emotion of fear. But I want to end, Madam President, with the most important emotion of all, that that brings us together this evening and on this commission, the emotion of hope.

But we can’t move to hope in this epidemic without understanding the grief that all of us, as Africans, have experienced in it. Our continent has been particularly burdened by the only mass epidemic of HIV anywhere in the world. In my country, there are 6 million people living with HIV. In your country, the prevalence is lower, but I know that every single one of you—I can look at you, Minister for Water Affairs; I can look at you, Minister for Foreign Affairs—I know something about your families. You’ve lost people to HIV. We’ve all felt the grief and the pain and the bereavement, the amputation of this epidemic. But, there’s a second emotion which the president spoke about this afternoon. She spoke about this epidemic’s vicious cycle of despair and destruction. And that’s also a vital emotion to understand if we are to do our work properly. It’s the emotion of fear.

The most distinguishing feature of this epidemic is the stigma that has attended it in the United States, in Western Europe, elsewhere in the world, but also on our continent. The stigma that is associated with HIV/AIDS has been our biggest battle for rationality, for calm, and for good policy in this epidemic. Now, the stigma comes from a difficult source and it’s one that I have to broach this evening. And it’s important for us to broach. The stigma comes from the way in which HIV is transmitted, which is through sex. It is a difficult issue to raise at a state banquet with Her Excellency present, but one that I know she’ll want me to raise because we have to understand stigma if we’re going to find proper answers to this.

What is stigma? It is blame. It is condemnation. It is rejection. It is ostracism. It is judgment that we pass on people because of the way that they acquired HIV. Now, I told you that in my country, South Africa, we have 50 million people and there are 6 million people living with HIV. I am one of them. I was diagnosed with HIV very long time ago in 1986. And I fell very severely ill with AIDS eleven years later in 1997. And I was going to die. I was terribly sick. But I was very lucky. I had access to antiretroviral medication. President Mandela had appointed me a judge after we became a democracy. And with the salary of a judge, I could afford those medications which were unaffordably expensive at that time. And my life was given back to me.

I’ve not been able to keep silent since then because we know how to deal with this epidemic. The means are available to us if we only implement them. Now to make that point, I have to tell you something further about myself. I have to tell you how I got HIV. I got HIV from another man. I know that that’s a topic of deep debate in Malawi. In my country, it was also a topic of deep debate, and we decided, when we became a democracy in 1994, that we would not discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. And at the end of the year in which we became a democracy, President Mandela appointed me to the high court. And when I was appointed to my country’s highest court four years ago, not a single voice in the whole country raised an issue about the fact that I’m a proudly and openly gay man. And that’s right. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that our continent has issues of flood, of starvation, of mal-governance, of corruption, of drought. Those are the issues that we as Africans should be concerned about. And issues of disease. Not issues of judgment about sexual orientation.

I mention that because the example of condemnation of homosexual activity is only an instance of how we condemn people. We say, “That minister is alleged to have HIV. He sleeps around too much. That woman in the village next door is alleged to have HIV. She wasn’t faithful to her husband. That man has got too many girlfriends.” We condemn. We allow our condemnation to step in between us and our rational responses to the epidemic.

Now we’ve learned a lot through these 30 years of grief. In my country, we’ve had millions of AIDS deaths; in Malawi, fewer. But there’s not a household in your country that hasn’t experienced that grief. We’ve learned a lot from them. And what we’ve learned is something that has been expounded by a very vocal and beautiful exponent of human rights law who is sitting there and who was honoured earlier this evening by President Banda when she asked him to stand up because of his contribution in the 1990s to your constitutional development—Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia.

That’s the important understanding: that human rights are our friend in the battle to deal with HIV and AIDS. They’re not our enemy. We know that we have to remove legal restrictions. We’ve got to remove legal restrictions. (Madam President, I know you’ve taken a brave stand on this. You’ve spoken out.) We’ve got to remove laws that criminalize the brand that drives people away from access to health care. This disease is entirely medically manageable. For sixteen years, I’ve lived a vigorous, healthy, passionate life. I’m grateful to be able to be with you this evening because of that. But we stop people accessing care; we stop people accessing behaviour change, education, and counselling; we stop people accessing life-saving medication—when we condemn them, when we criminalize them, when we brand them with judgment in this epidemic. The human rights approach is core to this epidemic and I believe that the commission will endorse it deeply. I am grateful to President Banda for her leadership on these issues.

I hope that Malawi will become a light in our region and in our continent of rationality and fearlessness, that we will allow our condemnation to abate, that we will deal with issues in ways that science and evidence show works.

This is a medically manageable epidemic. What we have to do is we’ve got to get people to take the drugs. We’ve got to get people to come forward to be tested. We’ve got to get people to come forward for their diagnosis. We’ve got to get people to come forward and to stay in care and to get their drugs and to continue to take them. That is the path that we have to take.

I’m moving now to the third emotion. I’m moving to hope. The drugs came down in price. The battle about drug pricing was won partly because of the activists in my country who took to the streets against the drug companies’ high prices. And, in honour to the drug companies, they responded to a public campaign saying that it is immoral and unacceptable that poor people in Africa should be consigned to die and to suffer an inglorious death while there are drugs available to treat them, but which are unavailable only because of patents. The prices came down. That showed what civic action can achieve.

And in my country also we had a nightmare for a period of five or six years, when President Mbeki refused to accept the science and the evidence of AIDS. But we had a Constitution. We have a Constitution like you have in Malawi, and our courts upheld the Constitution. Our constitutional court, before I was appointed to it, instructed President Mbeki to start making antiretroviral treatment available even when he didn’t want to do so, even when he was questioning the science of AIDS. But again, it was popular action, popular involvement by people living with HIV that brought the case to the courts. And it was courts and the rule of law and the judges who judged the case on the basis of reason and evidence who said, “You’ve got to start making these drugs available.”

I conclude by saying that the third emotion will overcome our grief. The third emotion will overcome our fear, and the third emotion is hope: hope in ourselves as Africans. Respect in ourselves as people who follow evidence, who find solutions, and who care for our own humanity and for those of us around us who are at the risk of losing their lives.

Thank you from my heart.

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TOPICS:  HIV Human Rights

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