In April 2000, the Clinton administration declared AIDS a national and global security threat, marking the first time that the National Security Council had become involved in fighting an infectious disease. In July 2000, the United Nations Security Council affirmed this assessment, as did U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2002, when he said that “HIV doesn’t just destroy immune systems; it also undermines the social, economic and political systems that underpin entire nations and regions.”
The AIDS pandemic’s destabilizing effects have been keenly felt in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, HIV/AIDS in Africa has “undermine[d] education and health systems, economic growth, micro enterprises, policing and military capabilities, political legitimacy, family structures, and overall social cohesion.” In the weakest states, this multisectoral devastation increases “vulnerability to extremists and terrorists who may attempt to corrupt or coerce individuals into providing converts, cover, or cooperation.” Indeed, HIV infection rates among African armed forces are two to three times higher than those of civilian populations. (A South African military official recently announced that twenty-three percent of that country’s soldiers are HIV-positive.) If current infection rates persist, African militaries may become incapable of either dealing with internal strife or deterring ambitious neighboring states. Such instability may well spark further political and social upheaval, inspire a move away from the rule of law and toward despotism or anarchy, and lead to sustained human rights abuses on a massive scale.
These destabilizing effects potentially extend beyond the African sub-continent as well. In the so-called “second wave” states—including China, India, and Russia—infection among high-risk groups is beginning to spread into the general populations. Although the Indian government estimates that a little less than 1 percent of Indians are infected with HIV, epidemiologists deem a disease prevalence rate of 1 percent or higher an “epidemic,” and in a country the size of India, this level means millions already are infected. In China, between ten and twenty million people are predicted to be HIV-positive by 2010. In Russia, the infection rate currently is twice that of the United States—and the official number of HIV cases has been rising by 50 percent each year. The pandemic’s potential impact upon these states, given the size of their populations and their deeper integration into world economic and security structures, could have global repercussions far greater than those already seen in Africa. And because of its decimation of young adults in their most productive years, HIV’s most enduring and socially destructive legacy across all regions may be the millions of orphans it has produced and the many millions more to follow, as some 90 percent of people infected worldwide do not know they have HIV.
In light of its impact upon virtually all indicators of human well-being—from public health to national security—the global AIDS pandemic presents a quintessential human rights challenge affecting the vital interests of all nations and requiring a comprehensive, human rights-based approach if it is to be brought under control. National security officials therefore can no longer safely deem the advancement of human rights and the rule of law a noble humanitarian aspiration secondary to the vagaries of realpolitik. In the age of AIDS, human rights and the rule of law are realpolitik. Reducing AIDS-related stigma and discrimination, so that more people will get tested for HIV and receive prevention counseling, is a national security issue. Respecting and enforcing the rights of women, so that they may control their bodies, reject unwanted sexual advances, and insist upon the use of condoms to protect against HIV infection, is a national security issue. Ending modern-day slavery and reducing the spread of HIV by eradicating human sex trafficking is a national security issue. And ensuring access for all to life-sustaining drugs, so that HIV-positive parents may provide and care for their children, is a national security issue. More than mere “issues,” in fact, these challenges are fast becoming national security imperatives.
Simply put, HIV thrives where human rights don’t. Controlling HIV therefore requires our collective global commitment—governmental, societal, and personal—to securing the human rights of all people.
As published in Human Rights, Fall 2004, Vol. 31, No. 4, p.14.