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AIDS as Security Threat? Think Again

December 8, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

On 7 June 2011, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1983 which states that AIDS is a great security threat to the world and therefore actions need to be taken to weaken the link between the epidemic and insecurity. The argument put forth in the resolution holds that causality between AIDS and violence runs in both directions:  if left unchecked the epidemic can cause conflict; reversely, condition of conflict can spur the epidemic, affecting both the local population and peacekeeping soldiers. If this is the case then activities to prevent and contain the HIV epidemic should be integrated with activities which aims to ensure security (in particular the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces). Such depiction of AIDS as both cause and consequence of security threats is based on the following reasons

(..) conditions of violence and instability in conflict and post-conflict situations can exacerbate the HIV epidemic, inter alia, through large movements of people, widespread uncertainty  over conditions, conflict-related sexual violence, and reduced access to medical care

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé further emphasizes that as rape is increasingly used as weapon of war, conflicts are likely to spread the virus amongst women and children. The policy implications of such argument is to

Encourage the incorporation, as appropriate, of HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support, including voluntary and confidential counselling and testing programmes in the implementation of mandated tasks of peacekeeping operations, including assistance to national  institutions, to security sector reform (SSR) and to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) processes.

But is it really the case that conflict causes AIDS or vice versa? The evidence for such statement are at best scant and inconclusive. Other posts on this blog (see here and here) have argued that the causality between conflict and AIDS is very weak. It suffices to say that conflict-related sexual violence can drive up the epidemic if and only if they happen in country with high prevalence rates: this is not the case in most of the conflict ridden areas. Further, the narrative of rape as weapon of war has been discredited on the ground that it is very difficult to collect data on sexual violence in normal circumstances even more so in conflict situation. On this basis a statement which is closer to reality would sound like we do not know whereas stating that rape is increasingly use by soldiers is not borne by definitive evidence.

A paper from Colin McInnes published on Internation Affairs sheds some light on the other side of the argument i.e. AIDS causes instability and represents a security threat. The review highlights that there is no evidence supporting the claim that the AIDS epidemic creates conditions of instability in a country. For example, one of the argument often heard is that people affected by HIV might become disenfranchised from the society and therefore more prone to violence. However, such claim is not borne out by any evidence at all.

In her book the Wisdom of Whores, Elisabeth Pisani recounted her first days at UNAIDS when HIV/AIDS was little recognized by the international community and therefore little funding were earmarked for that. One of the strategy adopted by the UNAIDS to attract more attention was to beat up the data available. “Beat up” is a journalistic term which implies presenting news in such a way that they sound more worrying and serious that actually are. So for example one can state that prevalence rates are gone up from 1% to 2% or that they went up by 100%. The latter is an example of beating up and can be instrumental if one is trying to make a case for funding for HIV/AIDS. The current attempt pursued by UNAIDS to link AIDS with conflict has clearly the goal of attracting more funding. However, it departs from the approach of beating up because it hinges upon  inconclusive evidence. This tendency to securitize AIDS is however associated with two risks: firstly, funding might earmarked specifically for military operations which at this stage do not seem to be key driver of the epidemic; secondly, peacekeeping forces might be given the mandate to participate in HIV prevention interventions (see the policy implications above) whereas such tasks could be more efficiently be performed by health professionals.

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