More than 20 nonprofit groups, most of which work explicitly with gay and transgender communities, are being blocked from participating in a major UN session on AIDS by a coalition of Islamic countries, as well as Russia and two additional African member states.
The 2016 High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS will begin next month in New York. Writing to General Assembly President Morgens Lykketoft on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — a bloc of 57 states that includes Saudi Arabia and Iran — Egypt objected to the inclusion of 11 nongovernmental organizations, including several that work specifically with transgender people. Reuters first reported the existence of the OIC letter.
VICE News obtained a full list of currently approved NGOs, as well as a list of 22 organizations that have been rejected by member states and the countries responsible for their denial of access.
Among those cast out by the OIC are groups from Jamaica, Ukraine, Peru, and Thailand that work with LGBT communities. Guyana Trans United, a group that advocates for transgender people in the South American country, was similarly rejected, as was the South African-based African Men for Sexual and Health Rights.
"It's fucked up, but also totally within the rules," a UN official with knowledge of the letter remarked on condition of anonymity. A spokesperson for the Egyptian mission to the UN did not respond to a request to clarify its objection to the 11 groups.
Separately, Tanzania and Cameroon rejected a total of nine NGOs based in their respective countries. Most of those groups work with the LGBT community in some capacity. Affirmative Action, one of the groups based in Cameroon, is a youth-led organization "working to reduce the prevalence of HIV and STIs among vulnerable groups," according to a description on the HIV Young Leaders Fund Website. The group also provides "welcome refuge for LGBT victims of violence and rejection from their community," said the fund.
An additional two groups from Russia that work with drug users and advocate harm reduction methods like needle exchange were blocked by Moscow. The Russian government publicly opposes all forms of harm reduction, including opioid substitution therapy — a stance that is widely tied to a domestic epidemic of HIV and other communicable diseases.
The US, the European Union, and Canada have written letters to the office of the General Assembly protesting the exclusion of the 22 groups. In a communication dated May 13, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wrote to Lykketoft requesting that he "release publicly the written objections" that he had received from member states. They also called for Lykketoft's office to "authorize" one of the groups rejected by the IOC, the US-based Global Action for Trans Equality.
"The NGOs that have been singled out for exclusion appear to have been chosen for their involvement in LGBTI, transgender or youth advocacy," wrote Power. "Given that transgender people are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population, their exclusion from the High-Level meeting will only impede global progress in combatting the HIV/AIDS pandemic."
'We have no possibility to overrule the objections in spite of the fact that I personally regret them.'
In an interview, Lykketoft said that the exclusion was largely out of his hands. He said that the instructions he's received from member states have prevented him from overriding individual objections, or even from making public what countries requested that groups not be given access. Those decisions, he said, "I don't quite understand, but I have to respect."
He noted that his office had negotiated with countries to remove some earlier objections, however — an effort that he said reduced the number of groups blocked by roughly half. Still, the 22 organizations in question remain stymied.
"We have done whatever we can within and outside our actual authority," said Lykketoft. "We have no possibility to overrule the objections in spite of the fact that I personally regret them, because I think that it's important that all civil society organizations and all those involved with groups of people with HIV and AIDS be present at the conference."
The AIDS conference comes less than two months after the General Assembly met for a special session on global drug policy. A number of civil society groups criticized the session's outcome document for failing to include the words "harm reduction," or proscribe the death penalty for drug crimes. According to diplomats, many of the same conservative countries that stonewalled during those negotiations are the same that have impeded the access of NGOs that work with gay and transgender people to the UN system.
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