By Dr Sujatha Samarakoon
President AIDS Foundation Lanka
First recognized in 1988, World AIDS Day falls on December 1 each year. On this day, people around the world unite to show support for people living with and affected by HIV and to remember those who lost their lives due to AIDS.
An estimated 40 million people worldwide have died of AIDS since 1981, and an estimated 38 million are living with HIV by end 2019 (1) and 1.7 million became newly infected in 2019 (1) making it one of the most important global public health issues in recorded history. Despite recent improvements in treatment, the AIDS epidemic still claims an estimated two million lives each year, of which more than 250,000 are children1.
Since 1988, Sri Lanka has been commemorating World AIDS day which is dedicated to spreading awareness of the AIDS pandemic and the need to prevent and control of HIV in the country and to remember those who have died of the disease.
The red ribbon has become an internationally recognized symbol for AIDS awareness, worn by people throughout the year in support of people living with HIV and in remembrance of those who have died.
Sri Lanka is categorized as a country with a low prevalence of HIV infection as the HIV prevalence among adults above 15 years of age was 0.1% as of end 2019 (2). At the end of 2019, it is estimated that around 3600 people are living with HIV in the country2. The main mode of transmission is through unprotected sex (2). The National STD/AIDS Control Programme (NSACP) of the Ministry of Health, which spearheads the national response to HIV/AIDS commenced interventions even before the first HIV infection was diagnosed in the country in 1986. The initial programmes were mainly to create awareness among the general population especially the youth and women on methods of prevention. Concomitantly HIV testing services were introduced free of charge in the government sector where people were able to get the HIV test done to know their status maintaining confidentiality. A policy decision was made to screen all donated blood for HIV infection in the public sector and also the private sector. The outcome of this timely decision was that since year 2000 no blood transfusion associated HIV infections have been reported to the national programme. This was a great achievement for the health sector and the people of Sri Lanka. Awareness programmes were then expanded to involve the key population groups or populations most at risk to HIV infection due to a variety of reasons including high risk sexual behaviours. The highest prevalence of HIV is reported among men who have sex with men (MSM) at 1.5%2. HIV prevalence is also reported among trans-gender women (TGW), female sex workers (FSW), beach boys (BB) and injecting drug users (PWID). Other high-risk groups include prisoners, drug users and migrant workers. Between 2011 and 2019, new HIV infections among adult males have been increasing exponentially from 78 cases to 359 cases, which is a 460% increase (2). Currently, the national programme is reaching out to key population groups using several approaches especially to reach the hidden high risk populations.
In 2004, a policy decision was made to provide anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to people living with HIV (PLHIV) through the national programme. As of end 2019, a total of 2 302 (64%) (2) knew their HIV status and 1 845 (51%) (2) registered for treatment which is offered free of charge.
AIDS Foundation Lanka (AFL) was established in 2008 after the 8th International Conference on AIDS in Asia & Pacific (ICAAP) was held in Sri Lanka. The objectives of the AFL is to support the National STD/AIDS Control Programme in conducting awareness programmes to educate the general population and key population groups on basic facts of HIV/AIDS, access and availability of services and support people living with HIV.
Through-out the years, AIDS Foundation Lanka has reached out to several population groups such as out-of school youth, formal and informal sector workers and healthcare workers in educating them on basic facts of HIV which includes the methods of transmission and prevention, availability of services and the need to dispel stigma and discrimination. Several awareness programs were held at workplaces, hospitals and communities. These programmes are conducted to support prevention efforts and also the “test and treat” policy of the national programmes by encouraging those who are living with HIV and do not know their status to get them tested for HIV. People with HIV who are aware of their status, take ART daily as prescribed which helps to control the replication of the virus and keep an undetectable viral load which enables to live healthy lives and have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting HIV to their HIV-negative partners.
Every year, AFL commemorates the World AIDS Day by conducting awareness programmes for the general public including women and youth.
Although a non-profit organization, AIDS Foundation Lanka, continuously supports people living with HIV by providing them a nutrition food package monthly, educational grants, book vouchers, school bags and shoes, tuition and transport fees for children infected and affected by HIV. Some are supported in initiating self-employment income generating projects and by paying overdue housing loans. One objective of these support schemes is to strengthen the link of PLHIV with the national programme as around 10-20% of patients registered with the national program defaults attending services.
During the COVID-19 period, the national programme has made every effort to provide HIV testing services, treatment and care. The AFL has supported these endeavours by increasing the nutrition food package allowances, transport allowances to travel to HIV service providing clinics, on-line tuition fees for students.
AIDS Foundation Lanka is supported by several well-wishers who have undertaken to look after an individual or a family. The well-wisher provides the nutrition package or tuition fees to AFL and AFL handles all donations maintaining confidentiality. Some schoolchildren through their social clubs, interact clubs have come forward to donate nutrition packages, school books and other utilities. HIV positive pregnant women are provided with additional nutrition support and a maternity kit which contains baby clothes and other utilities for mother and baby worth SLR 8000/=. All PLHIV related support activities are carried out maintaining confidentiality of donors and recipients. AFL is located at the 1st Floor of Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA), No 6, Wijerama Mawatha Colombo 7. Phone number 011-2690230.
1.UNAIDS: Global HIV & AIDS Fact Sheet 2020. www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet
2. National STD/AIDS Control Programme, Sri Lanka. Annual Report 2019.
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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