Opinion : Behind the (International) Scenes: The Legal Network and the United Nations - by Alison Symington

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May 15, 2014

Behind the (International) Scenes: The Legal Network and the United Nations

by Alison Symington

An HIV/AIDS policy expert on global efforts to advance the rights and health of those most vulnerable.

Alison Symington
Alison Symington
I've been a part of the Research and Policy team at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network for more than six years, during which I've had the opportunity to do a wide variety of work. I've drafted legal arguments for our interventions in a housing rights case, produced a documentary, prepared submissions for parliamentary committees on HIV testing, delivered lectures and workshops on a wide range of human rights and legal issues, and written book chapters and journal articles on the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure.

But over the last few months, I've also been devoting considerable time to efforts that are less visible yet still important in promoting the human rights of people living with and vulnerable to HIV.

In November 2013, after an international competitive bidding process, the Legal Network was chosen to serve as the Secretariat to the Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS. Practically speaking, this means that we coordinate and support the work of the 16 external experts from around the world who advise UNAIDS on human rights issues - and we sit at that table as experts in our own right. The Reference Group makes recommendations to UNAIDS on key human rights issues in the global HIV response, issues statements on critical international issues and processes, and engages with UNAIDS staff to encourage and support them in defending human rights.

Since the Reference Group includes some of the most committed experts on HIV and human rights in the world, the Secretariat is always engaging with complex issues and at a high level. How can UNAIDS strengthen its own internal understanding of, and commitment to, human rights in the response to HIV? What positions should it adopt on various HIV-related human rights, from sex workers' rights to HIV testing, from access to medicines to reforming global policies criminalizing drugs? How can it best defend the human rights of people and communities most affected by HIV around the world?

This work is strategic, inspiring and challenging. I am constantly learning about how policies are affecting vulnerable populations in different regions of the world, new strategies to make institutional and policy change happen, and tactical means of communicating and participating within different policy processes. Through this work, my role a human rights advocate continues to evolve, and the insights I am gaining help to inform our other policy and advocacy efforts at the Legal Network.

Over the years, we've built strong relationships with the UNAIDS and its human rights staff. You can see examples of some of our most recent collaborative work by clicking on the sidebar texts.

If it wasn't clear before, this new role with UNAIDS has demonstrated to me another way in which the Legal Network is making a contribution to advancing human rights in the HIV response. Being part of this high-level international collaboration - often working "behind the scenes" to try to effect policy change at the global level to advance the rights and health of those most vulnerable - makes me very proud to work for the Legal Network.

And amidst the work on often challenging human rights issues, there is also some fun to be had. While the Legal Network was selected to support the work of the Reference Group because of its long track record of expertise and competence, when we attended our first meeting of the group in December, we learned that it would only become official if we could correctly repeat several limericks recited at the group's dinner by Susan Timberlake, the Chief of UNAIDS' Human Rights and Law Division I'm glad Richard could step up and cover that requirement; I was still laughing too hard after Susan's delivery of the poem she wrote to honour Ralf Jürgens, outgoing Reference Group Secretariat (and former Legal Network Executive Director). Fortunately, we passed the final test!

As the world discusses what a new international development agenda looks like, and we hear lots of talk about what it will take to bring about "the end of AIDS," it's clear that attention to human rights remains as critical as ever. We're looking forward to supporting UNAIDS' expert group in keeping rights on the agenda.

Alison Symington is the co-director of research and policy for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which originally published this article.

Search: Alison Symington, Canada, UNAIDS, human rights, criminalization

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