Global Constituency-led Networks Raise Concerns Over IAS Decision to Host the 2020 International AIDS Conference in the U.S.A.


Global community-led networks have expressed serious concerns over the decision to name San Francisco and Oakland as host cities to the International AIDS Conference in 2020, which was announced on 13th March.

The Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+)the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW)Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE)the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF), the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), the HIV Youth Leadership Fund (HYLF)Innovative Response Globally for Trans Women and HIV (IRGT)International Civil Society Support (ICSS)The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, The International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD), and the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC) have all raised concerns as community-led networks of key populations and people living with HIV.

More than 50 U.S. activist organisations have also released a joint statement, which you can read here.  

The decision to host the IAC in the U.S. is at odds with the five values of the International AIDS Society, which include being human rights-focused and inclusive and encouraging of meaningful engagement with people living with HIV and key populations. In 2012, the IAC was held in Washington which led to similar restrictions on key populations from attending. In response to this, NSWP organised the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, an alternative event held in Kolkata, India, which was attended by hundreds of sex workers from around the world. The decision to hold another IAC in the U.S., a mere 8 years later, is unacceptable. 

Read the full joint statement below:

The Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+), The International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW), Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE), The Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF), The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), The HIV Youth Leadership Fund (HYLF), Innovative Response Globally for Trans Women and HIV (IRGT), International Civil Society Support (ICSS), The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, The International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD), and The International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC), have come together to express deep concern over the decision to name San Francisco and Oakland as host cities to the International AIDS Conference in 2020 (AIDS2020).

Our global networks and organizations question the decision to hold another conference in the U.S. so soon after AIDS2012 was held in Washington D.C., and following AIDS2018 in Amsterdam. Specifically, our networks share concerns about:

  • The deteriorating human rights climate in the U.S., which includes travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s increased profiling of immigrants and people of color; the U.S. Justice Department’s continued attack on California’s sanctuary cities; and recent language by the U.S. President calling for the death penalty for people who sell drugs and praising Philippines’ President for presiding over a regime marked by extrajudicial murders of people suspected of using drugs. The hostile political context in the U.S. will make it nearly impossible for sex workers, people who use drugs, people from Muslim countries, and anyone with a criminal record (including LGBT human rights defenders) in our respective networks to enter the country and feel safe to participate in the conference;
  • Persistent disparities that exist between San Francisco and Oakland, which we expect will get glossed over by global organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and scientists who profit from the HIV epidemic and nostalgia that ensures the continuation of the status quo. Large international AIDS conferences reveal social and structural inequities while doing very little to pro-actively address them at the local level;
  • The huge resource strain that the conference will create for community-based organizations, especially in Oakland as well as those led by people living with HIV, communities of color, gay men, people who use drugs, sex workers, and transgender people throughout the Bay Area and the U.S.;
  • The conference’s tendency to privilege established researchers, governments, celebrities, corporations, and funders, an entire industry appropriately labeled “AIDS Inc.” – while community-based organizations and advocates get relegated to second tier decision-making roles and background programming;
  • The inordinate amount of money it will take to produce a conference for 20,000 people or more in the Bay Area. It is difficult to justify such an expense at a time of shrinking resources and when there are still millions of people worldwide without basic HIV prevention, care, treatment, and support services they need;
  • The U.S. will be nearing the tail end of a presidential election cycle, which means the background political dynamic of AIDS2020 will most certainly be fixated on U.S. political machinations. The lack of leadership in the Trump administration on local and global responses to HIV will detract from more meaningful discussions about ending AIDS. The likely influence of bringing the conference to the U.S. will be minimal at best and harmful at worse, as U.S. and global advocates will have to divide their attention between political mobilization to influence the election and attending to the demands of AIDS2020.

As community-led global networks, we have repeatedly expressed these concerns to the International AIDS Society to no effect. Time and time again, the International AIDS Society has opted to take decisions about the frequency and location of their conferences without regard to resource disparities at the local and global levels. It continues with closed bidding processes that ignore background policy and legal environments, which make it unsafe for members of our communities to attend.

Under different circumstances, we would be enthusiastically rallying behind the International AIDS Society as an equal partner in our collective work to end AIDS. Instead, we are compelled to question the wisdom behind bringing international conferences to countries that bar the participation of critical community partners. We must also question the desire to bring multi-million-dollar conference productions to resource rich cities without proactive plans for addressing gross HIV disparities that persist at the local and global levels. The International AIDS Society’s opaque decision-making about the frequency, location, and size of its conferences jeopardizes meaningful partnerships with communities most impacted by HIV, therefore undermining its credibility as a leader in the global HIV response.

While we remain committed to supporting the advocates, researchers, and implementers who will gather together for knowledge exchange and advancement, strategic planning, and advocacy action at appropriate and considered fora, we cannot condone decisions that intentionally or unintentionally leave anyone behind. Therefore, we call on the International AIDS Society to:

  • Meet with local activists in Oakland, San Francisco and the U.S. to hear and respond to their concerns about the decision to bring AIDS2020 to the Bay Area.
  • Provide a transparent and open explanation of how the site decision for AIDS2020 was made.
  • Reconsider its decision to bring AIDS2020 to San Francisco and Oakland, including a request to the San Francisco organizers, in a gesture of global solidarity, to use the resources they have mobilized to support a low or middle-income country to host the conference.
  • Engage communities worldwide in a thoughtful, transparent, and participatory exploration of the purpose for international HIV conferences in the present time and of alternative approaches for supporting scientific breakthroughs, critical information exchange, skills building, and opportunities for mobilization.
  • Commit to alternative models for producing International AIDS Conferences that are less expensive, less frequent, and purposefully in sync with critical policy and advocacy milestones or indicators set by the global HIV community, ultimately making it easier for cities in the global south to bid.
  • Create a public strategy to pro-actively engage with and ensure the participation of constituents who are most often left behind because of punitive legal and policy environments, including: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; people who use drugs; sex workers; people from majority Muslim countries; and people of color. This might include developing criteria for selecting host countries with optimal legal and policy environments to encourage safe and unhindered conference participation by all. 

People living with and most affected by HIV need a global response that thoughtfully takes into account political, economic, social, policy, and legal developments that exacerbate the negative impacts of HIV. We need a modernized, forward-thinking, proactive, and progressive global HIV movement, not an AIDS Inc. that habitually recycles old ideas using outdated formats and fora. This can only be possible when community partners are equally engaged in the process of selecting formats and venues for such conferences.