Thank you Chairman for your kind introduction.
It is my pleasure to open this first high-level meeting on HIV and human rights in the EU and neighbouring countries.
First, let me thank UNAIDS – co-organiser of this important event – as well as my colleagues here on the podium: Mr Lykourentzous, Mr Lourez and Mr Mendao.
The high number of distinguished participants at this conference highlights both a strong interest in human rights in the context of HIV/AIDS, as well as a shared concern that Europe has unresolved problems in this area.
In various speeches, declarations and statements we often refer to the urgent need to overcome stigma and discrimination – major barriers in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
But what does "stigma and discrimination" really mean in the daily lives of people affected by HIV?
It can mean social exclusion and discrimination – in healthcare and in the work place. Not everywhere, and not in every case, but – as the sessions of this conference will show – still encountered all too often in the Europe of today.
Overcoming this hurdle is essential to effectively reach key population groups – to both prevent HIV transmission, and stimulate adequate levels of support from healthcare and social services.
Protective legal and social environments for people affected by HIV are sadly not yet fully established across the whole of Europe. Promoting the rights of people affected by HIV/AIDS must therefore remain at the centre of European HIV policy, and a priority of the EU Health Programme.
I made a personal commitment to proactively fight discrimination and promote respect for the rights of all stigmatised communities before the European Parliament last year.
I also stressed my commitment to keeping the EU fight against HIV/AIDS high on the political agenda and to ensure that Europe plays a leading role.
The European Union has a long history and a strong record in developing, defending and promoting human rights – built upon the core values of: democracy and the rule of law; the respect of fundamental rights; the principles of equality and solidarity; and respect for human dignity.
These principles are reflected in the Treaty of Lisbon, and reinforced in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These rights are promoted through all EU policies and apply to all people living in the EU, whether they are EU citizens or not.
The Charter prohibits any discrimination, on any grounds – sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, religion or belief, disability, age, sexual orientation and more.
Within the EU, the protection of fundamental rights is ensured: Nationally, based on Member States’ constitutions and international legal obligations, such as the European Convention on Human Rights; and At EU level, based on the Charter, through actions by EU institutions, and in the national implementation of EU law.
In essence, the EU works to ensure that human rights are respected everywhere.
The EU also actively promotes and protects fundamental human rights through a range of programmes and activities, including: Human rights dialogues with third countries, development policy and assistance, co-operation and trade agreements; and The work of European Agencies, including the Fundamental Rights Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control which, for example, last year supported Greek authorities in efforts to contain the spread of HIV among injecting drug users in Athens.
The EU Health Programme supports these efforts. Over the past years, several projects have been funded focused not only on epidemiological and behavioural surveillance and the exchange of good practice, but also on activities addressing stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.
Europe’s broad experience and knowledge serves as a model in countries and regions where fundamental rights are not yet in line with international standards. Indeed, our legal framework is a strong anchor for the promotion and protection of these rights.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The first years of the HIV epidemic (the early 1980s) sparked fear and confusion – surrounding an unknown but devastating disease which mainly affected gay men and injecting drug users.
The identification of the virus in 1983 raised hopes for the development of medical protection, prevention and treatments – but we had to wait 15 years for highly effective treatments to emerge.
This background has provoked both stigma and discrimination linked to HIV/AIDS.
Tomorrow, the results of the stigma index will be presented. These will provide an up-to-date picture of stigmatisation and discrimination, particularly in relation to access to healthcare.
In accordance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, everyone should have the right to preventive healthcare and the right to benefit from medical treatment under the conditions established by national law and practices.
Plus the 2009 Commission Communication on combating HIV/AIDS makes clear that access to information, confidential testing, quality treatment and care is essential and should be available everywhere in Europe.
As long as the need exists, the Commission will keep the issue of HIV/AIDS high on its policy agenda.
I am well aware of the call for action sent to President Barroso and myself, for a new strategy and action plan on HIV/AIDS. I can reassure you today that our work will continue.
The evaluation of the current HIV strategy will help to identify areas where we need to intensify our efforts in the future: to "reach the unreached" amongst key population groups; to establish access to treatment where barriers still exist; to promote evidence-based prevention, including prompt treatment; to strengthen the role of civil society, and involve people living with HIV/AIDS in policy development and implementation.
In taking this strategy forward, we will make full use of the instruments of EU health policy, other EU instruments and through our external relation policies with the European neighbourhood.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me finish by emphasising the need to promote and pursue our policies in the most efficient and best targeted manner, making sound investments in health. This includes appropriate and sustainable funding for the prevention and treatment of HIV.
We know what works: we know that prevention and treatment pay dividends; and we know that a rights-based approach must spearhead our efforts towards the ultimate goal of "zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths".
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