Sunday, August 20, 2006

"There are those who will say I have no right..."


Stephen Lewis lets it all out at the last day of Toronto's AIDS conference:

I am bound to raise South Africa...it is the only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state. Between six and eight hundred people a day die of AIDS in South Africa. The government has a lot to atone for. I'm of the opinion that they can never achieve redemption.

There are those who will say I have no right, as a United Nations official, to say such things of a member state. I was appointed as Envoy on AIDS in Africa. I see my job as advocating for those who are living with the virus, those who are dying of the virus - all of those, in and out of civil society, who are fighting the good fight to achieve social justice. It is not my job to be silenced by a government when I know that what it is doing is wrong, immoral, indefensible.

Lewis' supporters are saying that he's put South Africa's AIDS strategy under the microscope and pointed out that they're using strategies that simply don't work. The transcript of his speech can be found on a few places on few places on the web, I found this particular instance at allAfrica.com.

The South African government, already regarded with scorn at the conference for including garlic and lemon juice as treatment for HIV positive South Africans, has not dealt well with Lewis' diatribe. Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (who is not without some supporters for her immune-system boosting theories) is taking flak in South Africa and the rest of the world, dismissing most of it as politicking or simply changing the topic. Reuters gives one look at it here, where the offical party line boils down to:

While such confrontational posturing may be necessary for the maintenance of the TAC's international profile, it does nothing to strengthen the country's comprehensive response to HIV and AIDS...What Africa needs now is not unsubstantiated attack on democratically elected governments, but delivery on the many resolutions made with regard to addressing poverty and underdevelopment which increases the vulnerability of our population to disease.

Stephen Harper conveniently didn't attend the conference (previous engagements defending large pieces of ice up North, or for fear of being yelled at by strangers, we don't judge here) and instead sent Tony Clement who decided against announcing any new Canadian AIDS strategies for fear of that same kind of politicking that Tshabalala-Msimang is complaining about. Tony said that "That conference, in our view, was becoming a place where you couldn't have a rational discussion." With Tshabalala-Msimang getting snippy about nobody wanting to listen to her beetroot HIV treatment, he might have a point about the lack of rational ideas.

But I don't think that's quite what Tony was trying to get across - it feels like he was trying to get away from the strangers yelling at him, pure and simple, and saying that Canada's AIDS strategy won't be mandated by those strangers shrieking in his direction. Its also a fine excuse not to listen to any of them (and when you're part of a government who appears to pride itself on not being ruled by polls, it fits the script).

This is a collection of people who are working very hard to change the subject - Tshabalala-Msimang thinks that examining garlic and lemon is worth a try, why not further accentuate the positive? Harper wants out of the equation entirely and heads north. Tony insists that Canada's doing enough and whatever happens next will not be the result of the conference. Of course, nobody in Harper's regime wants to take the actual hit for not attending - Tony's guest-shot is a sop to prevent people from saying that there were no federal representatives. Of course, the federal rep is there to say that he didn't really have to be there and wasn't responding to anything happening there and...

...and so on. I am left wondering exactly who Harper was trying to impress with his level of well-placed (and public) indifference to the event. I'm wondering why the party line switched from 'we will be making announcements about our AIDS strategy' to 'no announcements yet - the atmosphere is too politicized.' I'm wondering if Harper is so thin skinned that the option of being screamed at in absentia is preferable to gritting his teeth and facing criticism in public (where he won't appear steadfast and unflappable). I think I know the answers to these questions, but there seems to be so little intelligence and strategy behind the actions that I wonder what else there could be.


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