Feature story

New generation of health and human rights advocates inspired by Dr Jonathan Mann

10 December 2008

UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot, 24 November 2008
Credit: UNAIDS/M. Girardin

“We have lost him, but we have not lost the legacy he left us,” said Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia of Dr Jonathan Mann, the visionary epidemiologist, advocate and scientist who highlighted the inextricable links between human rights and public health.

In commemoration of Dr Mann's untimely death ten years ago, and to celebrate his legacy and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UNAIDS, WHO and OHCHR hosted “HIV, health and human rights: The Legacy of Jonathan Mann Today” on 24 November 2008.

The commemorative event brought friends and former colleagues of the late Dr Mann together with human rights, health and HIV practitioners for a moving tribute.

UNAIDS Executive Director, Dr Peter Piot, spoke of the significance of Jonathan Mann’s influence on shaping the early AIDS response. “If somebody else had been in charge of the global programme on AIDS, they would have created it with other ideas, with old-fashioned public health ideas, such as quarantine and forced testing. The response to AIDS would have been quite different, and it would have been catastrophic,” said Dr Piot.

Seeing the humanity of those affected and marshalling resources on their behalf

Credit: UNAIDS/M. Girardin

Dr Piot explained that Dr Mann was a leader in thinking of HIV as more than a virus, how he “would see immediately the societal and political implications” of the disease. “He was more like a chess player than anything else for knowing and anticipating the next move of the virus, as well as the people who didn’t want to deal with it,” said Dr Piot.

A compelling keynote speech was given by Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia who advised Dr Mann when he was director of the Global Programme on AIDS. Justice Kirby recalled Dr Mann’s conviction at their first meeting, “AIDS is a women’s issue…a women’s issue because of women’s disempowerment.”

Justice Kirby spoke movingly of Dr Mann’s inspiring leadership, and encouraged UN staff and other guests to continue Mann’s work with the same imagination and courage. He also took the opportunity to thank UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot for his own powerful leadership and strong support for human rights in the response to HIV.

A film on Jonathan Mann produced by The Face of AIDS and entitled “Jonathan Mann: Legacy of a Huma Rights Advocate” was premiered at the event. Footage included interviews from the late 1980s in which he explained the unique way in which AIDS both unveils and exacerbates previously existing disadvantage and social challenges, making human rights essential to any HIV response.

Credit: UNAIDS/M. Girardin

Dr Mann’s call for an understanding of the people behind the disease resonated throughout the discussion that followed, illustrating the ongoing significance of his message.

A panel of former peers, moderated by Kevin M. De Cock, Director of the WHO Department of HIV/AIDS reflected on the man they knew and brought his commitment alive for the 140 guests, who represented different generations in the AIDS response.

Jonathan’s tireless advocacy in promoting an inclusive response to HIV by involving people living with HIV, sex workers, people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men was highlighted as contributing to a seismic shift in the way the United Nations and the world responded to HIV .

“In his ear, the voice of a sex worker and the voice of a president had the same weight,” recalled Teguest Guerma, Associate Director of the HIV/AIDS Department at the WHO.

Credit: UNAIDS/M. Girardin

Daniel Tarantola, Professor of Health and Human Rights, University of New South Wales, Australia recalled the fundamental practicality of Jonathan’s message, “He was guided by the practical utility of human rights as a framework for responding to HIV.” He and Sophia Gruskin, Director, Program on International Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, both talked about Dr Mann’s incredible leadership in bringing together, for the first time, HIV and respect for human rights.

It was clear that Dr Mann’s passion was equally inspirational to a younger generation who never knew him. UNAIDS Youth Research Fellow Korey Chisholm described how Dr Mann’s approach of explaining human rights simply and directly to all people will help him when he returns to his home country, Guyana, to build capacity among networks of sex workers and men who have sex with men. Chisholm noted how this approach will enable people to recognize their own rights and be stronger advocates.

Today’s relevance of human rights to health and HIV

Jonathan Cohen from the Open Society Institute moderated a subsequent discussion on the ongoing relevance of human rights to health and HIV in light of some contemporary human rights challenges.

Cohen highlighted the similarity and urgency between Jonathan Mann’s key message in an article he published in 1988 entitled “Health and human rights: if not now, when?”, and the 2007 Declaration signed by over 600 organisations entitled “Human Rights and HIV/AIDS: Now More Than Ever”.

Credit: UNAIDS/M. Girardin

Mark Heyward who is the head of AIDS Law Project and the Deputy Chair of the South Africa National AIDS Council, called for a new direction in the AIDS response based on the recognition of human rights and highlighted the need to move beyond the rhetoric.

Challenging those present to remember Dr Mann’s words as if he were still live today, Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga from the Bolivian Network of People with HIV/AIDS stressed that his message is as relevant now as it was then. “When did we lose the passion he brought?”

Ross also questioned how the discussion of HIV would be different if Dr Mann were still alive. As Dr Peter Piot pointed out, “Jonathan Mann saw beyond the health condition to the human being. He saw beyond the patient to a sick society”. The same need for such vision remains today.

The event was co-sponsored by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with guests from UNAIDS secretariat and cosponsors, the Global Fund, as well as other organizations and government missions.

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UNAIDS acknowledges the health and human rights legacy of Jonathan Mann on the tenth anniversary of his death (2 September 2008)


A celebration in honour of Jonathan Mann and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (24 November 2008)

Watch video broadcast of this event