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UNAIDS: Bold human rights targets need better monitoring

If UN agencies set bold targets for human rights reform, they must commit to reporting rigorously on progress to achieve them. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on evaluation and human rights. EspañolFrançais

Take a trip back to the fabulous summer of 2010, when thousands of activists marched in Vienna at the International AIDS Conference. We waved our beer steins in Stephansplatz to the sweet songs of Annie Lennox, and demanded “Human Rights and HIV/AIDS, Now More Than Ever”. That year, UNAIDS added ambitious human rights targets to its 2011-15 “Getting to Zero” strategy.

Now fast forward to 2015. The UNAIDS-Lancet Commission has once again called for ambitious human rights action to help bring an end to AIDS by 2030. As the UNAIDS and The Global Fund craft new strategies and new indicators, it seems like a good time to ask – how are we doing?

In fact, it’s hard to say, given the unfortunately vague reporting by UNAIDS on its last human rights indicators. For example, one of those human rights targets from 2010 was to reduce by half the number of countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality that block effective responses.


Flickr/United Nations Development Programme (Some rights reserved)

UNAIDS workers address beneficiaries at an AIDS/HIV clinic in Timbuktu, Mali.


 That was a bold goal: to cut in four years the number of countries with punitive laws that have been shown, over and over again, to make it impossible to reach the “key populations” most vulnerable to HIV (sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who inject drugs). Specifically, UNAIDS demanded that we cut the number of countries with laws that criminalize HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or same-sex sexual relations.

These are four clear and easily measurable targets. But they were never actually measured. Why? Because UNAIDS annual reports never set a clear baseline (cut half of how many?), and often used narrative description instead of numbers. Moreover, the reports changed what they measured each year, and did not consistently report comparative data (i.e., whether the numbers of laws increased or decreased from year to year).

Briefly, digging through the text of UNAIDS annual reports reveals the following:

  1. From 2011-15, the number of countries criminalizing HIV transmission rises briefly from 60 countries to 63 countries (in 2013) and then dips back to 60 countries in 2015 (the change is not explained but probably reflects a change in how countries were categorized);
  2. The number of countries criminalizing same-sex relationships increases from 78 countries in 2011 to 79 by 2015;
  3. On sex work and drug use, UNAIDS annual reports gives no number and says only that “most countries” criminalized both. (Twice, UNAIDS reported data on the number of countries that use compulsory drug detention for drug users. That is a great thing to track, but it is not the original target.)

Overall, no matter how you count it, there was almost no change on these four targets in five years. That’s depressing.

Was the original target (“reduce by half the number of countries with punitive laws”) an achievable goal? Probably not; law reform is slow work and it would have been a massive job to overhaul this many laws in this many countries. Certainly, it would have required a whole lot more financial and political investment in pushing for law and policy change: the hard work of reviewing laws and policies, litigation, human rights advocacy, community mobilization and more.

But even if the goal was overambitious, having more rigorous and reliable reporting on the indicator would have generated data for use by governments, UN treaty bodies, UN country offices, and civil society. That would make it easier to press for change. 

What were originally pretty good targets got buried in ambiguous text. Instead, what were originally pretty good targets got buried in ambiguous text. Instead of sticking to the original clear targets, the UNAIDS report chapter on this human rights indicator lumped in lots of other issues, and muddied the waters.

For example, the original strategy from 2011 says that “…[n]early two thirds of countries reported policies or laws that impede access to HIV services by certain populations.” There’s a clear baseline. What happened next?

The next year, in 2012, UNAIDS reported that 60% of countries had laws or policies that impeded access to services (so about two thirds?). But there was good news, as the report noted: “Although these figures are clearly cause for concern, they are promising in another respect, since acknowledging the existence of such laws is a critical first step towards reforming them.” Or perhaps not, since the 2013 and 2015 reports had the same 60% statistic, without comment.

Human rights indicators don’t fix problems. They often bring bad news. But they do focus the mind on action. A good human rights indicator is an advocacy tool that promotes transparency, accountability and action – globally, regionally, and nationally.

A weak human rights indicator—or a good one that is under-resourced and buried in noise—is actually a barrier to accountability. This is something to think about for the next strategy.

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared in June 2015 at “Meg Davis”.

About the author

Meg Davis is a writer and consultant writing about aid accountability, and health and human rights. Until recently, she was the senior human rights advisor at The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Meg Davis est une écrivaine et consultante qui s’exprime sur la responsabilité en matière d’aide, ainsi que sur la santé et les droits de l’homme. Jusqu’à récemment, elle était conseillère principale pour les droits de l’homme au Fonds mondial de lutte contre le sida, la tuberculose et le paludisme.

Meg Davis es una escritora y asesora que escribe sobre rendición de cuentas de la ayuda, y salud y derechos humanos. Hasta hace poco tiempo, fue la asesora principal de derechos humanos de El Fondo Mundial de lucha contra el sida, la tuberculosis y la malaria.

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