“Oh, the UN is just a talking shop, ” is a comment I sometimes hear. But a talking shop which brings truly diverse groups together and then sparks a genuine conversation – is something different, surely? Well, I was ring-master at just such an event in Bangkok recently, entitled HIV and the Law – the Regional Dialogue for Asia and the Pacific, convened by the UN’s Development Programme. It was the first of a number of such regional events being planned by the UNDP and as such, no one knew quite what to expect – not the organisers, nor the participants, nor me, to be quite frank. The result was electrifying…
Electrifying because gathered in the round chamber were groups of people who never usually get to meet, let alone talk to each other – people living with HIV, pressure groups of various sorts representing the most vulnerable groups, parliamentarians, judges, health professionals, police officers, lawyers and several senior UN executives (the latter merely as observers!). My role as ring – master was to give everyone a fair shout and to try and kick-start a dialogue between opposing viewpoints with a view to figuring out practical changes to laws and access to justice. Amazingly, it worked – people were genuinely engaged with the debate, and by the end of the day, came up with a packed action plan to feed into the UN’s Commission on HIV and the Law.
Here are my memorable moments from a long day of debate and dialogue. When Akai, a beautiful transgender woman from South India, suddenly burst into song to recount her painful story – that was an electrifying moment. Princey from Sri Lanka’s determination to champion her legal rights to get access not just to healthcare but to protect her property – that was profoundly moving for everyone in the chamber. Stuart from Singapore’s unexpected account of how the local police had changed tack in dealing with key groups like men-who-have-sex-with-men, even though the law was as draconian as ever – struck a much needed positive note. And Commissioner Jon Ungkaphorn’s masterful account of how intellectual property laws were threatening access to cheap generic anti-retroviral drugs – was a lesson in jargon-free communication.
If you were at the Round Table in Bangkok – what were your highlights? What do you think we achieved? What happens next? Please add your comments below!