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AIDS award spurs questions

091116_04
Cambodian first lady Bun Rany attends last year’s World AIDS Day celebrations in Phnom Penh.

A UN special envoy is scheduled to present first lady Bun Rany with an award recognising her role in combating HIV/AIDS and in reducing stigma and discrimination against people living with the disease, a move that has raised some eyebrows among human rights groups, one of which called it “a slap in the face”.

The Asia-Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development Award will be presented by Dr Nafis Sadik, the UN secretary general’s special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, during a ceremony Tuesday at the headquarters of the Cambodian Red Cross, which Bun Rany heads.

UNAIDS Country Director Tony Lisle said Sunday that the decision to present the award to Bun Rany had been prompted by her “very, very, very active” role in HIV/AIDS issues.

“Her focus has been very specific,” he said. “It’s been particularly focused on orphans and vulnerable children, the rights of people to access anti-retroviral therapy and also engaging communities at the local level in reducing stigma and discrimination.”

He added: “I know that in cases where children have been excluded from school, she’s intervened and sent very clear messages about the inappropriateness of exclusion on the basis of one’s HIV status,” he said.

The adult HIV prevalence rate stood at 0.9 percent in 2006, far below the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of 1.8 percent, though the baseline used to set that goal was later revised downward.

Award questionable: NGOs
This accomplishment aside, several human rights workers said the government’s record on HIV/AIDS issues was blemished at best.

“This award is a slap in the face for Cambodians living with HIV and those most at risk, especially sex workers, homeless people and people who use drugs,” said Joe Amon, director of health and human rights for Human Rights Watch. “Rather than uncritical praise, UNAIDS should be speaking out about this government’s discrimination, stigmatisation and neglect of Cambodia’s most marginalised communities.”

Amon cited this year’s Borei Keila eviction as an example of poor treatment of HIV/AIDS patients. City Hall forcibly relocated 40 HIV-affected Borei Keila families to the Tuol Sambo relocation site in June and July. Rights groups have regularly criticised conditions at the site, which have included a lack of food and oppressive heat.

Though she was less critical of the decision to give the award, Pung Chhiv Kek, founder of the rights group Licadho, said she hoped it would prompt Bun Rany to take action in preventing Borei Keila-style evictions in the future.

“I would like to take this opportunity to appeal to her that recently, there have been some families that have HIV/AIDS, and the government put them in a special place,” she said. “I hope that she will do something so that these people have the possibility to live with the rest of the population. It’s a kind of discrimination.”

In response to civil society criticism, Lisle said he agreed that Tuol Sambo was “a big mistake”, but he argued that the award was justified.

Tuol Sambo, he said, “does not in any way take away from Cambodia’s excellent track record in reducing stigma and discrimination.”

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