By Dr Edward Greene
I am saddened by the turn of events leading to the decision of the University of the West Indies (UWI) to terminate the post-retirement contract of Professor Brendan Bain as director of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network.
Dr Edward Greene is Professor Emeritus at UWI and former Pro Vice Chancellor and Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research. CHART was established under his tenure as Assistant Secretary General of the CARICOM Secretariat and Chair of the PANCAP Executive Board
I am fully aware of the role and functions of CHART and, moreover, of the importance of Professor Bain’s leadership and his impact on a wide array of Caribbean public health practitioners and people infected and affected by HIV. I am also very aware that, over the past eight months, the vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies wrestled with the issues surrounding Professor Bain’s testimony in the Belize constitutional case, including the question of academic freedom.
Professor Bain’s submission to the court was aimed at upholding a law that, in the opinion of public health experts and members of civil society, reinforces stigma and discrimination against men who have sex with men. In March 2014, Professor Bain tendered his resignation from the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP) executive board, presumably due to the recognition that his position was incompatible with that of the leadership and membership of PANCAP.
When, therefore, the University of the West Indies took its decision last week to end his contract on the basis of “a conflict of interest”, this was a culmination of events based on Professor Bain’s loss of support and goodwill among major national, regional and international organisations working in HIV/AIDS. The protests against the university’s decision unfortunately mischaracterise it as a threat to freedom of speech and to academic freedom.
On the contrary, it is simply a lack of credibility to lead CHART, given the organisation’s goals surrounding the elimination of stigma and discrimination toward men who have sex with men and other communities that are vulnerable to HIV.
We should grasp the opportunities this situation presents. PANCAP in collaboration with UNAIDS has initiated a series of national and regional consultations under the theme “Justice for All and Human Rights”. The process will give rise to actionable recommendations to be ratified by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government in July 2014.
These recommendations relate to a range of targets -- eliminating mother to child HIV transmission; strengthening laws and responses to address domestic violence and other forms of abuse; and creating a framework for faith groups to help address stigma and discrimination. There are also recommendations to accelerate the process for repeal of laws criminalising sexual acts in private between consenting males and females and replacing them with provisions criminalising sexual acts between persons in public or with the use of force.
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has consistently said that human rights are universal and must be universally respected. We in the Caribbean have started a social movement through constructive engagement. During our Justice for All discussions, faith leaders in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean demonstrated a willingness to reach out to those in need. During the last World AIDS Day, faith leaders across denominations focused on the theme, “Getting to Zero Discrimination through Justice for All”.
I believe that this is the appropriate time to make the effort across society to eliminate the stigma and discrimination that surround HIV. Our governments and community leaders increasingly recognise that laws and policies that criminalise key populations, force them underground, away from information, testing, treatment, care and support services. These laws are discriminatory and counterproductive. They must be repealed or at least modified. Let us address these challenging issues as we work together to end AIDS.