Blog Post

2012 AIDS Conference: Criminalized Groups Need Not Apply

09 July 2012

When the International AIDS Society announced that the 19th International AIDS Conference would be held in Washington, DC, some advocates saw an instant opportunity: tens of thousands of scientists, activists, government officials, and journalists descending on Washington four months before a presidential election, all pressing President Obama and the U.S. administration to keep their promise on AIDS. The shift that made it possible to host the AIDS conference in the US for the first time in 22 years—U.S. repeal of an archaic law denying admission to people living with HIV—lent a spirit of optimism to the event, particularly after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced an “AIDS-Free Generation” as a U.S. policy priority.

Others felt their hearts sink when Washington was chosen for the conference. These were the millions of people who, by virtue of having a history of drug use or prostitution, remain inadmissible to the U.S. under current law. In order to apply for a U.S. nonimmigrant visa or a visa waiver, all persons must answer the following two questions, even if the sole purpose of their visit is to attend a conference:

  1. Are you or have you ever been a drug abuser or drug addict?
  2. Are you coming to the United States to engage in prostitution or unlawful commercialized vice or have you been engaged in prostitution or procuring prostitutes within the past 10 years?

Answering “yes” to either of these questions renders an applicant ineligible for a U.S. visa, though the consulate may grant a waiver and let people in at its discretion.

Drug users and sex workers represent the majority of people living with HIV in many countries, and are among the most at-risk of infection everywhere. The irony of allowing people living with HIV to the conference while refusing those likeliest to be—or become—infected has not been lost on everyone. Towards the end of the 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Indian activist Meena Seshu called for a boycott of AIDS 2012, making the self-evident point that it was unethical 31 years into the AIDS epidemic to discuss matters of AIDS policy in the absence of those most affected. But the response was muted.

Drug users and sex workers working to end AIDS find themselves in an untenable position. Aside from the usual barriers to conference attendance—expensive flights, prohibitive registration fees, limited scholarships—they now have to choose between lying on their visa application form (which is of course against the law) or risk getting rejected for a visa (and potentially having this recorded for any future attempt to visit the U.S. or countries with whom the U.S. may share immigration information). Many have understandably chosen to boycott the conference: starting in Kiev on July 9, drug users and people living with HIV from Eastern Europe will host their own conference to discuss issues of HIV policy that matter to them. Sex workers and their allies will follow with a side meeting in Kolkata the week of AIDS 2012. The International AIDS Society considers Kiev and Kolkata to be “hubs” of the main event, but they are as much a protest against the main meeting as a satellite of it.

The Obama Administration could have prevented this. They could have issued a blanket waiver of inadmissibility for meeting delegates, as they did for people living with HIV when that ban remained in effect during the 2008 UN High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS in New York. They could have issued a public statement promising to streamline individual waiver requests, including setting timelines and allowing automatic review of negative recommendations. They could have reassured participants that they would look favorably upon applicants seeking a waiver for the sole purpose of attending a conference. All they did, according to a letter issued on March 30 but not released by the International AIDS Society until June 21, was place the conference on a list of events provided to U.S. missions and notify those missions of the importance of the conference.

The conference, which has ironically chosen the theme “Turning the Tide Together,” will begin on July 22. In the days leading up to it, drug users, sex workers and their allies from around the world will not be silent. In Kiev, Kolkata, and via Twitter, Facebook, and the website, they will share their messages with conference delegates about what is needed to end AIDS. Hopefully the conference delegates in Washington—who have been denied their right to hear from these communities in person—will listen closely.

Jonathan Cohen is Deputy Director of the Open Society Public Health Program and Co-chair of the UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights.

Follow me on Twitter: @JonCohenNYC |

Posted by , 2012-07-09 | Blog, Washington, D.C.


  • Answer :
    1.yes,I was IDU,n0w my clean time is 9 years 3 month 3 week.. from bekasi,west java INDONESIA

  • “Turning the Tide Together,” by have based on human dignity equality, equity and fundamental freedom

  • Bertrand Audoin, Executive Director, International AIDS Society | July 18, 2012

    The Open Society Foundations (OSF) are a long-standing and valued partner of the International AIDS Society (IAS) and the International AIDS Conference and the blog post by deputy director for public health programs Jonathan Cohen highlights important issues related to the challenges that certain individuals face in entering the U.S. to attend AIDS 2012. The IAS, as the convener and one of the 13 partners of AIDS 2012, wishes to clarify and expand upon a few points raised here and elsewhere about these issues, especially as related to the conference’s leadership and decision-making process.

    If contact had been made before the posting of this blog, we would have clarified the issues being discussed.

    First it is important to state that the IAS and many of the other AIDS 2012 partners are also frustrated with the current U.S. entry requirements that prevent some key populations from entering the country to attend AIDS 2012 next week.

    The decision to hold the conference in Washington, D.C. was taken in late 2009 after the U.S. Government acted to formally lift the restrictions on the entry of people living with HIV. At that time, the decision was welcomed by all involved in the HIV response; it was felt that after 22 years it was time for the International AIDS Conference to come back to the U.S., especially given the U.S. role in HIV research and financing.

    In the middle of 2010, concerns regarding the U.S. as a suitable venue for the 2012 conference were put forward in a call led by U.S. civil society organizations in a letter to the conference secretariat. The secretariat brought those concerns before the Conference Coordinating Committee (CCC), the conference’s governing body, in October 2010. The CCC includes representatives of the conference’s 13 organizing partners*, including strong representation from civil society and community. All 13 partners, including the six U.S. partners, made the decision to keep the conference in the U.S. – this was not a decision made solely by the IAS. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the International AIDS Conference is that it is led by a partnership of scientific, government, civil society and community organizations that plans the conference, sets the theme and makes key decisions.

    At the time of this decision to stay, the CCC also formed a Working Group (WG) made up of CCC members and other international civil society organizations, including the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), tasked to develop solutions and recommendations to ensure maximum participation (both in person and remotely) of sex workers and people who use drugs at AIDS 2012.

    The WG researched U.S. visa regulations and processes for the entry of sex workers and people who use drugs into the U.S. and its representatives met with U.S. government officials. Detailed information about the visa requirements and waiver process was posted on the conference website: factsheet. A request was made to the U.S. government that measures be put in place to protect information about granted waivers of grounds of inadmissibility from reaching an individual’s home government or other governments. The Department of State assured the WG that statutory law ensures that visa information is confidential and is only used for a narrow and specific set of reasons (and some narrowly defined exceptions). In addition, the Vienna declaration on privacy restricts the sharing of personal data with other governments.

    In WG discussions that included INPUD and NSWP, the idea of targeted hubs for those two groups was proposed and supported by all involved. The hubs were conceived not as a protest to the conference, but as a way for those who could not attend on site to participate in the conference virtually – in the hubs model also used both for AIDS 2008 and AIDS 2010. The conference granted funds to the NSWP and the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN) to organize these mini-conferences in locations outside the U.S.

    In addition to monetary support from the conference, these organizations received administrative support from the conference secretariat (assistance with marketing, programme development, technical requirements, etc.) and assistance with additional fundraising. Conference staff has made site visits to support in the arrangements of these events and a few sessions will be interactive between Kolkata and Washington, D.C. For the Kiev forum, key priorities and messages were filmed and will be shown in D.C. during the conference. Scholarship recipients can also use scholarship funds to travel to a hub if they are unable to travel to the U.S. Some sessions will be interactive between Kolkata and Washington D.C. and an additional number of sessions are being prioritized for recording for the use of these hubs.

    So to conclude on this issue – we all wish that these individuals could come to Washington, D.C. to participate. Knowing that that was not to be the case, these two hubs were proposed by the conference secretariat and developed entirely with its support. The hubs, like many aspects of the International AIDS Conference, may well include activism and protest. The conference welcomes and supports such activism as a key component of the global response to AIDS and, indeed, takes active steps to facilitate it.

    The exclusion of key populations infected and affected by HIV has been a significant challenge in organizing AIDS 2012. The conference secretariat, working on behalf of all of the 13 organizing partners, has sought to provide clear and accurate information about U.S. visa and entry policies, to work with the appropriate committees to develop a programme inclusive of issues related to HIV and sex workers and drug users, and to support the best possible alternatives for those unable to travel to enter the U.S.

    *The IAS is the convener of the International AIDS Conference. The IAS sits on the Conference Coordinating Committee along with its 12 organizing partners. The international partners for AIDS 2012 are UNAIDS, International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW), International Council of AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO), Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) and Sidaction. U.S. partners for AIDS 2012 are District of Columbia Department of Health, The White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), The Black AIDS Institute, U.S. Positive Women’s Network, National Institutes of Health and the HIV Medicine Association of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

  • Jonathan Cohen | July 18, 2012

    Jonathan Cohen responds:

    I am grateful to Bertrand Audoin for publicly responding to my blog on the exclusion of sex workers and people who use drugs from AIDS 2012. As the world’s largest organization of HIV professionals, the International AIDS Society has a unique leverage to advance the human rights of people affected by HIV, and how it uses that leverage should be a matter of public discussion. The IAS is indeed a valued partner of OSF and an ally in advocating against discriminatory laws that impede the HIV response.

    Importantly, Bertrand reassures us that the decision to hold the conference in the U.S. resulted from a participatory process that included representation of drug users and sex workers. The decision-makers evidently decided that holding the conference in the United States was a unique opportunity, and it’s not for me to substitute my judgment for the diverse group that made this decision. The point of my blog was to highlight the decision’s consequences, particularly for sex workers and people who use drugs who are already lacking voice and power because of their criminalized status.

    I and many others appreciate IAS’s efforts to mitigate the impact of the travel ban on the conference and to work publicly and behind the scenes to ensure maximum participation of criminalized groups. The fact sheet Bertrand mentions, which I included in my blog, was an important resource during a difficult time. Unfortunately—and not surprisingly—these efforts have not sufficed to relieve the considerable anxiety among sex workers and people who use drugs about applying for U.S. visas, nor to restore the confidence of many delegates who have ethical misgivings about attending a conference that systematically excludes people it is intended to help.

    Fortunately, more can still be done. Tens of thousands of people will gather in Washington, D.C. next week in the presence of many top officials and the international media. The IAS and the 13 partner organizations that participated in choosing the U.S. for this conference can continue thier commitment to marginalized groups by using the opening ceremony of the conference to issue a bold and unequivocal denunciation of the arbitrary and discriminatory immigration laws that bar sex workers and people who use drugs from a conference that is about their lives. Such a statement could help to catalyze a movement towards ending these restrictions, just as when activists used the San Francisco AIDS conference in 1990 to courageously denounce the HIV travel ban.

  • Randall Chamberlain | July 18, 2012

    I see this as yet another tragic and infuriating consequence of the restrictive immigration policies that the US government continues to pursue. It is also completely consistent with the manner in which the Department of Homeland Security has been instructed to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” by focusing on deporting criminals with little regard for the circumstances under which immigrants may have been arrested or convicted.

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