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Fighting for your life – AIDS 2014 and its history of activism
Jun10

Fighting for your life – AIDS 2014 and its history of activism

CREATED ON // Tuesday, 10 June 2014 Author // Tim Hunter

In July this year, the International AIDS Society will be hosting AIDS 2014 in Melbourne, the 20th International AIDS Conference. Such conferences also generate a certain level of activism, and Tim Hunter looks at the history of the conference and associated activism.

For the first time in its 30-year history, the International AIDS Conference is being held in Australia – and more specifically, Melbourne. The first conference was held in Atlanta, USA in 1985, and was an annual event hosted in different cities around the world until 1994, when it became a bi-annual event.

The major theme this year is ‘Stepping Up The Pace’, and stopping the stigma attached to people living with HIV/AIDS. An important part of that is the Melbourne Declaration, essentially a treatise that individuals and organisations can sign to indicate their support to end the discrimination and stigma that many people in the HIV community face in many different countries, from governments all the way down to people on the streets. It’s a form of activism that is a strong part of International AIDS Conferences, and similar declarations have been made at previous conferences.

Watch the preview for the 20th International AIDS conference in Melbourne

The International AIDS Society (IAS) welcomes activism, and indeed actively liaises with activist groups. “The history of activism at the international AIDS conferences is varied, rich and important,” says Dr Lucy Stackpool-Moore, communications coordinator for AIDS 2014.

“It is a key element of why the conferences are unlike a lot of other medical and health conferences. They’re a platform to connect science and the community, and enable accountability and critical debate, and very welcoming. We have seen some important actions and political commitments result from the conferences over the years, and they can be a catalytic opportunity to galvanise words, actions and leadership. We hope that the AIDS 2014 Melbourne Declaration will continue to build on that strong history of activism.”

Previous notable activism at conferences include protest marches at the 1987 conference in Washington, which saw the formation of ACT UP, a group committed to advocating for change in government policies at a time when HIV/AIDS was still new and very little was known about it. The AIDS Quilt was first created for this conference and has since become a powerful symbol of the AIDS movement. Activists also stormed the stage in Montreal in 1989 protesting against the lack of a federally funded AIDS strategy in Canada.

The most significant activism occurred at the 2000 conference in Durban, South Africa. The South African government of the time had denied the impact of AIDS in the nation and claimed it was caused by poverty, not HIV. As a result, the Durban Declaration was signed by 5,000 scientists and researchers confirming the science of HIV, effectively undermining the South African government’s denial of AIDS and exposing the inequity in treatment. It also managed to make HIV medication available to many developing countries in Africa.

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[Image] The International AIDS conference in Durban, 2000.

The conference in Mexico City in 2008 saw demonstrations in favour of same-sex recognition and called for an end to stigma and discrimination and the reduction of drug prices, and many pharmaceutical companies subsequently dropped the price of HIV drugs in Mexico. The Vienna Declaration was initiated in 2010, advocating for a global call to action on science-based drug policy. It was signed by almost 13,000 people, and protesters demanded equal access to treatment to everyone, including injecting drug users, sex workers and transgender groups. And in 2012, thousands of protesters took part in a number of marches in Washington DC, with slogans such as ‘We Can End AIDS’ and ‘Keep the Promise’, that interrupted an address by Hillary Clinton.

The IAS has a Liaison Team that works with activist groups.

“The work of the team is to help activists to do their work while at the same time insuring the important activities and presentations of the conference continue as well,” explains the head of the team, Andy Velez. “The IAS is respectful and understanding of the work of activists and has over the years come to appreciate their contributions and how they enrich and complement the work of conference participants. Fred Bladou, a French/Moroccan longtime activist was a part of my team in Washington, DC, two years ago. He continues to work for French Aides. Richard Keane from Living Positive Victoria is now the third member of the Liaison Team, bringing to it his rich experience and knowledge of the community and its concerns in Australia.”

Velez is no stranger to activism. He was part of ACT UP when it began in 1987, is still an active member of its New York group, has been involved in liaison work for the last four conferences, and before then attended many other conferences as an activist. “Activists help to maintain the sense of urgency which is needed as we all continue to work and fight for the end of the epidemic. They also shine a light on neglected areas of the epidemic, whether it's on drug pricing and availability, stigma against those living with HIV, the needs of intravenous drug users and sex workers and more – all the issues which need to be addressed.”

Activist activities planned for this year’s conference include a Mobilisation Rally and the International Memorial Candlelight Vigil on Tuesday, July 22. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Tim Hunter

Tim Hunter

Tim Hunter is a writer, filmmaker and cultural commentator who loves talking about TV, films, travelling, Doctor Who and Speedos. He’s also the Queer Editor for Time Out Melbourne.

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