THE opening ceremony of the AIDS 2014 opening ceremony in Melbourne this evening was tinged with a sombre mood in light of the MH17 tragedy, while speakers also addressed the importance of combating HIV stigma worldwide.
The opening event to the 20th International AIDS Conference — which had Chinese journalist and UN Goodwill Ambassador James Chau as MC — began with the Dutch ambassador for sexual health and HIV rights, Lambert Grijns, paying respect to his fellow countrymen and women and AIDS 2014 delegates who died on the Malaysian Airlines flight that was shot down in Ukraine on Friday.
Shortly afterwards, as AIDS 2014 co-chairs Professors Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Australia’s Sharon Lewin took to the stage, a one minute silence of remembrance was observed with 11 former, present and future presidents of the International AIDS Society onstage together with representatives from other organisations who lost colleagues, such as the World Health Organization, AIDS Fonds, Stop AIDS Now, The Female Health Company, the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development and members of the Dutch HIV research community.
The opening ceremony continued with speakers addressing the crowded plenary room with powerful speeches highlighting the need to step up the pace on the global fight against HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination, and to raise awareness and education on HIV prevention and treatment.
Highlights of the evening included a speech by Ayu Oktariani, who led a procession of people living with HIV from South East Asia and the Pacific in traditional dress.
She spoke of her personal experience of being diagnosed with AIDS in her native country of Indonesia, and the stigma and discrimination she faced.
“Many of us got HIV because we did not have the means to protect ourselves,” she said.
She went on to provide a rallying call for people living with HIV and AIDS to get involved, highlighting that it cannot be just left to science.
“We need people living with HIV in the response,” she said.
“All people living with HIV must be treated with respect and dignity as human beings.”
UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe also gave a passionate speech, citing his “friend and mentor” Joep Lange — the former International AIDS Society president who was on the MH17 flight — as his inspiration in the global fight against HIV and AIDS worldwide.
“I’m calling for an end to AIDS by 2030,” he said.
Sidibe also called for an end to the “hypocrisy on sex” in order to make treatment and sexual and reproductive health education universal.
Other highlights included a speech by 23-year-old Tanzanian Yohana Haule, the man behind the design for the AIDS 2014 logo, and a speech by former High Court judge and LGBTI advocate Michael Kirby (pictured above).
Kirby spoke of the deaths of gay men around the world at the hands of discrimination and homophobia, such as Jamaican Dwayne Johnson and Eric Lembembe from Cameroon, and how they set back the fight against HIV and AIDS.
“Forgive me for speaking of the dead, but their suffering in our context is our demand for action,” he said.
He highlighted how homophobic laws being enacted by governments around the world also adds to the discrimination and stigma of HIV and AIDS.
“The voilence that they breed… sets back the global struggle against AIDS,” he said.
Kirby also highlighted how Australia’s example response to HIV is a model response other countries look to, and showed the broomstick scene from Fantasia as a metaphor of the state of HIV and AIDS around the world.
“To sweep up the flood with a broom is not going to work,” he said.
“We must turn off the taps.”
Victorian Premier Denis Napthine also welcomed the AIDS 2014 crowd, and UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had video messages.
However, the video message by Abbott — who was due to attend until post-MH17 tragedy duties took over — froze shortly after it began and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss took the stage afterwards.
Australian singer/songwriter finished off the opening ceremony with a live performance.
(Pictured: Michael Kirby addresses the opening plenary at AIDS 2014)