Thursday, 9 May 2013

Leading gay advocate talks Human Rights and HIV

Australia has been very fortunate to have visit our shores one of the world’s leading human rights advocates, South African Justice Edwin Cameron. Edwin Cameron is of course well-known to many in the HIV sector, due to his coming-out publicly as HIV-positive. He is the only public official across the continent of Africa to have disclosed his positive status (more on his interesting reflections on that later in this post).

The Human Rights Law Centre, in conjunction with the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH), hosted Edwin Cameron in Sydney last night as the guest of honour at the inaugural Human Rights Supporters Night.

The Human Rights Supporters Night is an opportunity to come together in a social setting to reflect on recent human rights achievements and challenges and to energise the movement to tackle the work that lies ahead of us.

Justice Cameron explained how the post-Apartheid Constitution with the Bill of Rights at its heart, is key to democratic South Africa’s understanding of citizenship and human rights. He posited that the Bill of Rights both challenges and facilitates strong engagement by South Africans in their citizenship.

When asked about what lessons Australia - the only Western democratic country without a Bill of Rights - could learn from South Africa, he said that the idea of enhancing citizenship, rights and responsibilities for all is the key selling-point.

He related how it is a tool for all South Africans, best exemplified by how it has been embraced by rural LGBTI people who see themselves "as entitled to full human rights and citizenship, endowed to them under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” They confidently assert and fight for their rights based on this understanding.


Don Baxter, advisor to AFAO International programs, asks
about change in Africa.  
Don Baxter, advisor to AFAO international programs, asked Justice Cameron whether he believed that local judiciaries could be agents for positive change for LGBTI people across Africa more broadly, given the very homophobic and hostile environments in certain countries.

Justice Cameron reflected that the most effective way to act is by supporting grass-roots LGBTI organisations, which are flourishing in the very countries in which hostility is greatest, such as Uganda. He said that visibility of LGBTI people across Africa is greater than at any time in history – something that is very welcome, and that the homophobic discourses that have recently taken place are in some ways a result of this visibility.

When asked about HIV stigma, he recognised that it is still a major issue, and that the law can only do so much. Consistent with his views that coming out is a positive and crucial step in the fight for acceptance of LGBTI people across the continent, Cameron highlighted that he is still the only public official in Africa who is open about his HIV status.

He believes that only civil society grass-roots organisations and individuals that can foster and nurture environments where others will also feel comfortable to disclose, which will in turn help in reducing stigma.

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