HARARE – A coalition of community groups and civil society organizations (CSOs) said on Wednesday they would boycott the closing ceremony of the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) unless Zimbabwean authorities reverse their decision to ban a planned march.
The march, which was scheduled for December 5, was meant to highlight the health crisis facing the continent, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic challenges, and inadequate healthcare systems.
But the organizers said they were denied permission to hold the march and faced harassment and intimidation from the security forces, who also dismantled their stalls at the conference venue.
“These actions represent a significant infringement on our rights to peaceful assembly and advocacy,” the organizers said in a petition addressed to the ICASA secretariat and the Zimbabwean government.
They accused the host country of creating a facade of engagement with CSOs and communities, while suppressing their voices and activities.
“Progress in defeating HIV will only be possible when communities are able to demand for their rights. This should be welcomed and encouraged by the ICASA and the host country,” they said.
They also expressed their disappointment with the ICASA organizers, who they said did not sufficiently support civil society voices to be heard.
They demanded a written commitment from future host countries to ensure that CSOs’ voices are heard and their activities are not hindered, and urged the ICASA secretariat to reject bids from countries with policies or tendencies against the expression of CSOs.
“If a prospective host country has policies or tendencies against the expression of CSOs, the ICASA Secretariat must strongly oppose its bid to host the event,” they added.
They said they would call for all participants to refuse to participate in the closing plenary, scheduled for Friday, if their demands were not met.
“This conference is meaningless if our voices are suppressed and silenced,” they said.
The ICASA secretariat and the Zimbabwean government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The petition was signed by several CSOs working on HIV and AIDS, human rights, and health issues across Africa, such as GFAN Africa, International Community of Women Living with HIV, AVAC, Swaziland Network of Young Positives, Health GAP, Sexual Minorities Uganda, AfNHi, Positive-Generation, Treatment Action Campaign, Stop TB Partnership-Kenya, The People’s Matrix Association, Advocates of Prevention and AIDS in Africa, Positive Vibes Trust, PEMA Kenya, Voice of Hope Foundation, and Resilience Uganda.
Zimbabwe has been criticized for its restrictive laws on public demonstrations, which curtail the rights of its citizens to express their views and grievances and give the police the power to ban public demonstrations indefinitely if they believe they will cause public disorder.
The ICASA conference, held every two years, is the largest gathering of experts, activists, and policymakers on HIV and AIDS in Africa. The theme of this year’s conference, which started on Sunday, is “AIDS IS NOT OVER: Address inequalities, accelerate inclusion and innovation”.