Markey's bill will help global fight against AIDS

Last week with the introduction of the International Human Rights Defense Act (S. 2472), Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) took a critical step toward ensuring the continued success of the United States landmark global AIDS response. The Act would establish an office within the Department of State responsible for coordinating efforts to defend the human rights of sexual minorities worldwide.

Over the last three decades we have seen the essential and inseparable role that human rights have played in prevention and treatment of HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. In the 10 years since George W. Bush introduced the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the United States became the largest donor to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, this country has been the leader of those responses around the world.

ADVERTISEMENT
Yet, in the beginning of this year, when Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill into law that made homosexuality a crime punishable by death, prohibited “gay organizations” and carried a penalty of 10 years imprisonment for anyone providing support for gay people, we were caught by surprise. A month later when Uganda’s president signed a similar bill, we were similarly unprepared for the news. The harm the laws brought became clear immediately, with violence in the streets of Nigeria, and with a police raid of a U.S. Military HIV Research Facility in Kampala. We also learned that while the leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria was among the supporters of that country's damaging law, the organization received money for implementing PEPFAR programs. The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which had endorsed Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality law, also was a recipient of PEPFAR funds. Adding to the confusion and betrayal of what was once a common cause; the U.S. response to the law in each country differed, leaving our stance on human rights and HIV responses unclear.

These are some of the reasons the International Human Rights Defense Act, which has been co-sponsored by 25 U.S. senators, is a proactive and important initiative. With the new office of "Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Peoples," the Act will prioritize a previously lacking focus on critical human rights issues. The Act will make it possible to coordinate efforts promoting international human rights for gay individuals with local advocacy groups, governments, multilateral organizations and the private sector. It will make preventing and responding to discrimination and violence against sexual minorities a foreign policy component addressed in the annual State Department Report on Human Rights. As a result, the Act will make possible effective outreach, coherent communications, and consistent responses to abuses that not only harm individuals but impact public health.

Recognizing the right of all people to health and dignity has supported impressive gains. With few exceptions -- Uganda and Nigeria among them - most countries where PEPFAR has brought resources, technology, medicine and hope are now seeing the numbers of people initiating life-saving antiretroviral treatment for HIV surpass the numbers of people becoming infected with the virus. The Act Sen. Markey has introduced will help to ensure that all people can gain equally from the humanitarian strides we have made.

Mayer is Infectious Disease Attending Physician and Director of Prevention Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Medical Research Director at The Fenway Institute; and co-chair of IDSA Center for Global Health Policy.