Press statement

International Human Rights Day: overcoming pandemics by respecting human rights for all

GENEVA, 10 December 2021—On International Human Rights Day, UNAIDS is calling for concrete action to prevent and respond to systemic human rights violations that create and exacerbate inequalities.

“We live in one of the most unequal times in history,” said the UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima. “What the HIV pandemic had already revealed, COVID-19 has again confirmed: crises and disasters are felt most strongly along the fault lines of society. Those who experience systemic discrimination and inequality are pushed further and further behind.”

Equality and non-discrimination are cornerstones of human rights. The Sustainable Development Goals made them a central element of the global development commitments that call on countries to reduce inequalities, including by removing the drivers of inequalities, such as discriminatory laws and policies.

Multiple and intersecting inequalities that drive the HIV epidemic are a result of human rights violations. Although new HIV infections globally have declined by more than 30% since 2010, progress has not been shared equally. In some countries, access to combination prevention tools such as pre-exposure prophylaxis and harm reduction services has resulted in progress among the most vulnerable groups of people, but in many others criminalization, marginalization, stigma and discrimination are leading to increased HIV incidence. However, during the past five years, countries that took a criminalizing approach to key populations (gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers, people who inject drugs, transgender people) made less progress in HIV testing and treatment. In 2020, 65% of new HIV infections were among these key populations, driven by harmful laws, policies and discriminatory social norms that punish, stigmatize and force underground key populations and fail to make available or accessible the prevention, treatment and harm reduction services that could so easily be used to stop HIV transmission and mortality. Six out of seven new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15–19 years in sub-Saharan Africa are among adolescent girls. This is in part because their right to education is not fulfilled on an equal basis with boys, their right to health is breached when comprehensive sexuality education is not provided and their right to bodily autonomy and security of the person is denied when states fail to address harmful gender norms.

In many contexts, international trade agreements conflict with human rights obligations by enforcing excessive intellectual property protections, creating artificial barriers for low- and middle-income countries to access affordable health products, impeding the production and distribution of generic medicines and hampering efforts to support the research and development of innovative health technologies that meet public health needs.  

This is a time of parallel and converging crises: multiple pandemics, climate change and continued economic shocks. In the past two years we have seen how profoundly systemic and structural inequalities deepen and widen during times of adversity. We cannot simply weather these crises—we must prevent them from happening. We will only succeed if we make the fundamental structural changes to create a more equal and stronger society, capable of meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow and leaving no one behind.  We must dismantle the structures that violate human rights and create and deepen inequalities.

We must strengthen access to health services by eliminating user fees and promoting policies to ensure that health technologies are considered global public goods, not commodities.

We must replace coercive and punitive approaches to emergencies, including to pandemics and to health and other pressing societal issues generally, with enabling, supportive and non-discriminatory solutions.

We must radically transform our concepts of gender to ensure substantive gender equality for all and enable people of all genders to flourish and participate in society on an equal basis.

And we must take action to ensure that the rights of women are girls in all their diversity are realized through concrete measures and investments, not just promises.

We can only succeed if we take as our foundation the fundamental principles of human rights, with communities leading from the front and at all stages of the process.


The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) leads and inspires the world to achieve its shared vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. UNAIDS unites the efforts of 11 UN organizations—UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNFPA, UNODC, UN Women, ILO, UNESCO, WHO and the World Bank—and works closely with global and national partners towards ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Learn more at and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.



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