Gay, transgender and other groups blocked from participating in a high-level U.N. meeting on AIDS represent the populations most affected by the disease and should take center-stage at the event, advocates said Tuesday.
Nearly two dozen civil society organizations from five continents that provide services for LGBT communities, intravenous drug users and others have been denied access to the three-day General Assembly meeting starting Wednesday at the request of Russia, Cameroon, Tanzania and 51 Muslim countries.
Under U.N. rules, any of the 193 member countries can veto the participation of any non-governmental organization without providing a reason.
So those excluded decided to hold their own event outside the U.N., hosted by the Ford Foundation.
Frustrated speakers at "The Impact of Civil Society Exclusion on Ending the AIDS Epidemic by 2030" forum noted it was civil society organizations like theirs that brought awareness to the issue of HIV and AIDS in the first place, paving the way for later meetings like this week' U.N. session.
"It is outrageous that we still have to fight for a place at the table," said Vitaly Djuma, executive director of the Tallinn, Estonia-based Eurasian Coalition on Male Health, one of the excluded organizations. The group works to prevent HIV and provide treatment, care and support for gay men and transgender people.
The high-level U.N. meeting on ending AIDS hopes to speed up the global response to HIV and AIDS over the next five years to better enable the elimination of the disease by 2030, one of the U.N.'s major goals. Participants will include governments, civil society organizations and communities of people living with or affected by HIV.
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The meeting "can help close the gap between needs and services and advance our efforts to leave no one behind," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement in advance of the meeting. Ban has long been out front on issues involving lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people,
In a letter to assembly President Mogens Lykketoft last month responding to the blacklisting of 11 organizations, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the groups appeared to have been chosen for their involvement with gay and transgender issues.
The letter asked that all groups that requested participation be allowed to attend and noted that transgender people are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population. Their exclusion from the meeting, she said, would only slow progress in combatting HIV/AIDS.
But the assembly's decision was not reversed.
In an unscheduled appearance at the Ford Foundation forum near U.N. headquarters, Lykketoft told participants that despite their exclusion, he considers their work an important part of the battle against AIDS.
"I feel very sorry that ... some countries within the General Assembly that do not realize the necessity — the obvious logical necessity — of integrating all parts of the affected populations."
Lykketoft said his office was able to negotiate reducing a lengthier list of 39 blocked organizations down to 22.
Mandeep Dhaliwal, team leader of the U.N. Development Program's HIV, Health and Development Practice, said she worked for an NGO before joining the U.N. and argued it is time to re-examine the rule that allows any U.N. member to veto a non-governmental organization's participation. These organizations could play an important role in the U.N.'s efforts to bring about an end to the AIDS virus, she said.
"The rules need to change," she said.
About 200 people attended the forum.