In July 2014, Melbourne played host to the 20th International AIDS Conference: the world’s largest gathering of policymakers, researchers, health practitioners and activists, coming together in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
At the conference’s opening ceremony Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UN AIDS, described his vision for ending AIDS.
“Voluntary testing and treatment reaching everyone, everywhere; each person living with HIV reaching viral suppression; no one dies from an AIDS-related illness or is born with HIV; and people living with HIV live with dignity, protected by laws and free to move and live anywhere in the world,” he said.
It is a vision shared by the Honourable Michael Kirby, a champion of HIV/AIDS legal reform and a former Justice of the High Court of Australia.
Justice Kirby delivered the Jonathan Mann memorial lecture at the conference, exploring the convergence of global health and human rights from the perspective of his previous roles as a Commissioner of the World Health Organization Global Commission on AIDS; the United Nations Development Program Global Commission on HIV and the Law; and the UN AIDS/Lancet Commission on Overcoming AIDS and Securing Access to Healthcare.
And at a public lecture delivered at the University of Melbourne during the conference, hosted by the Nossal Institute, Justice Kirby described how the law affects the spread of HIV/AIDS by marginalising vulnerable groups. At the same time, he highlighted the need to change international intellectual property law in order to ensure people living with HIV and AIDS are able to access essential treatments that preserve life and human dignity.
“In the past, I have served on a number of bodies dealing with the way in which the law is an impediment to successful strategies in reducing stigma and infection rates in HIV and AIDS,” Justice Kirby said, describing the battles that have been waged over patents for HIV and AIDS treatment and research since the 1980s.
He said the conceptualisation of health as a human right can be traced through the formation of the United Nations, the World Health Organization Charter, the Alma Ata Declaration on primary health care, and it underpinned the social mobilisation for the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS.
Describing the findings of the recent Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Justice Kirby said it was most important to uphold human rights when the law, far from being socially helpful, can add to stigma, discrimination and isolation.
“Coming to Geneva in the 1980s after witnessing the emergence of a mysterious new virus in then Zaire, my friend Jonathan Mann, the first director of the United Nations Global Program on AIDS, brought with him the idea that this ‘new’ epidemic would be subject to discriminatory practices, and must be addressed in terms of universal human rights and human dignity,” Justice Kirby said.
“This remains true today. Today, vulnerable groups – in particular, men who have sex with men, sex workers and injecting drug users – still face legal barriers that, in some cases, have prevented people from taking the HIV test and seeking treatment.”
Describing how intellectual property and patent law impacts on access to treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS, Justice Kirby outlined a “disproportionate” level of legal protection afforded to inventors of new drugs.
“The current global laws protecting the rights of inventors of new products – particularly in relation to pharmaceutical inventions – are disproportionate, both to the needs of invention and to the rewards that they carry. And too costly for people, especially in developing countries.
“Intellectual property laws relating to drug development have prevented people living with HIV and AIDS, especially in developing countries, from accessing treatments needed for them to be able to live with dignity. And without changing the global laws on intellectual property, people will die needlessly,” he said.
“What is needed, as the Global Commission on HIV and the Law pointed out, is a new inquiry at an international level, inaugurated by the secretary-general of the United Nations, to investigate a reconciliation between the right to health and the right of authors to proper protection for their inventions.”
The lecture was hosted by the Nossal Institute for Global Health as part of a new subject in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences focusing on the link between global health and human rights.
Reflecting the history of convergence between global health, human rights and the law, the subject is designed to provide grounding for students of public health on the normative content and interpretations of the right to health, and on the meaning of a rights-based framework for health in practice.