Boycotters: UN defers to Russia as HIV deaths soar

Rainbow-colored map of Russia (Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Rainbow-colored map of Russia (Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In a harshly worded protest letter, 21 anti-AIDS groups announced they will boycott a key U.N.-cosponsored conference in Moscow because the U.N.’s anti-AIDS agency has accepted Russia’s exclusion of gays and others – a stance that has led to an increase in HIV infections.
Civil society groups and networks at the international, regional and national level signed the letter announcing a boycott of the Eastern European and Central Asian AIDS Conference (EECAAC), scheduled to be held May 12 to 14 in Moscow.
Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS.
Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS.

“UNAIDS has ceased its leadership role in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) and in Russia in particular, and does the Russian government’s bidding by supporting its inefficient HIV policies,” stated the letter, which was addressed to Michel Sidibé, executive director of  the UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
By backing the conference and not challenging Russia’s approach, the letter said, UNAIDS was, in effect, endorsing Russia’s failing HIV strategies. Those include:

  • Replacing public health approaches with repression and criminalization.
  • Creating an atmosphere of intolerance and discrimination against key affected populations, such as people who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and migrants.

Anya Sarang (Photo courtesy of Harm Reduction International)
Anya Sarang (Photo courtesy of Harm Reduction International)

Anya Sarang, president of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice in Moscow, who signed the letter, said:

“Since UNAIDS being the co-chair and sponsor of EECAAC, never contradicted these statements, we can only state that UNAIDS is in the full agreement with them.”
“As a result of the deadly national HIV policies, Russia remains one of the world’s few countries with rising HIV incidence and mortality.”

In 2013 in Russia, 77,896 new HIV cases were diagnosed, a 10.1 percent increase from the previous year.  The year’s HIV-related deaths in Russia totaled 22,387, which was 9.1 percent more than in 2012.
Russia’s new anti-gay laws interfere with HIV prevention programs for LGBT people and discourage participation by LGBT people at the conference, because they would risk prosecution if they spoke up, the groups’ letter said.
Russia also blocks the use of methadone as a treatment for heroin addiction and moved to implement that policy in the Crimea after seizing control there earlier this year, the groups said.  Their letter stated:

Viktor Ivanov, head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service. (Photo courtesy of
Viktor Ivanov, head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service. (Photo courtesy of

“According to Viktor Ivanov, director of the Russian Drug Control Service, ‘the first thing [we have] to do in the Crimea is to abolish the practice of treating drug addiction with methadone.’ The EECAAC organizers are hoping that this official will speak at the conference opening.”

Another proposed speaker at the opening of the conference is Sergey Zheleznyak, a co-author of the Russian law that restricts NGOs’ access to international funding for HIV programs, the letter said.
In addition, Ukrainian NGO’s, including groups that serve LGBTI people, cannot participate in the conference. They had complained that they were barred from obtaining visas to travel to Moscow.
The open letter, dated April 24 and just now obtained by 76crimes, is  blunt in its criticism of UNAIDS.

“We express our solidarity with all those who suffer from repressions and the murderous policies within Russia and who are not able to participate in EECAAC, and we join the boycott of the conference.  … But we want to openly re-state our position and to express disrespect to, and disagreement with UNAIDS’s work in the region and in Russia in particular, which manifests in the inability and refusal to protect the interests and rights of [key affected populations] at high level.”

This blog has asked UNAIDS for its response to the boycott, but has not yet received a reply.
Sarang said, “We still hope that UNAIDS will stand up for those whose interests are being ignored, and voices suppressed. But when will it happen?”


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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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