“Protecting groups and individuals at risk is a moral obligation”. Australia High Court Justice Michael Kirby said these words 16 years ago during the 4th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific that the Philippines hosted in 1997 when he urged governments to adopt a morally correct way of containing the HIV epidemic.
Revisiting these words and thinking about their impact today would bring an impression that does not surprise advocates, because they would find out that there has been little progress as much as one would think after more than a decade has passed.
Kirby’s examples of what steps the Australian government has taken to prevent HIV infection during a drug use scare was not what was on everyone’s mind especially after a statement on the moral correctness of protecting their citizens.
He said, “Paradoxically enough, the only way to deal effectively with the problem of the rapid spread of this epidemic in our region is by respecting and protecting the human rights of those who are already exposed to the virus and those most at risk.”
He said that despite political disagreements, political parties recognized that there really was one clear and efficient way to reduce the risk of individuals, especially those who are in sex work, people who inject drugs, males who have sex with other males, and other marginalized persons. It was the “courageous decisions” that have been made by their political leaders to put aside their differences and prioritize these lives that changed the game.
“When we were in the middle of the war on drugs, needle exchange was a very politically risky step to take. But it was taken because the politicians came to the view that saving lives was the ultimate moral test,” he added. He referred to the program wherein people who inject drugs were encouraged to exchange their used needles for new ones when they are about to use drugs anew. He also encouraged the need for a standardized and realistic way of educating the public.
As for the Philippines, where advocates were lobbying for a law (RA 8504) at that time, he said the country’s leaders had “too many words and not enough action” and that they should respond “with more than words”.
RA 8504 or the Philippine AIDS Law was passed a year later in 1998, but it’s disheartening to know that despite Kirby’s reminder to the Philippine government to respond fast, and to adopt the moral correctness of recognizing its moral obligation to protect the rights of its citizens in preventing HIV infection, not much has changed.
There are still many disagreements on what is the ‘morally right’ thing to be done. This at the expense of the lives lost to AIDS and continues to lose at a hastening pace. Would it take another 16 years or more for us to see anything happening in the fight against HIV? We sure hope not.