THE Secretary General of the SADC Parliamentary Forum, Ms Boemo Mmandu-Sekgoma has made the case for the right to health to be recognised as a justiciable one that can be enforced in the courts of law, which is not the case in most African countries.
Mmandu-Sekgoma made the call when she addressed the opening session of the second continental conference on the impact of Covid-19 on HIV responses in Africa that was held in Windhoek, Namibia on 30 June, 2022.
The conference was organised by the reconstituted Committee on the Protection of PLHIV under the aegis of the African Commission. It drew the participation of dignitaries who included the honourable Namibian Minister of Health and Social Services, Dr Kalumbi Shangula, Hon. Commissioner Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie (Chairperson of the Committee), Dr Saleem Muhammad (UNAIDS) and Ms. Lilian Mworeko (International Community of Women Living with HIV Eastern Africa).
Mmandu-Sekgoma pointed out that ironically, other human rights such as the right to life, or freedom of movement and of expression are justiciable.
“In this respect, it is imperative for Parliaments to be leveraged to legislate in view of implementing the right to health whether by legislating in favour of essential medicines or providing guarantees to people living with HIV (PLHIV) or by altogether making the right to health a legally enforceable right,” she said.
Mmandu-Sekgoma told her audience that as Secretary General of the SADC Parliamentary Forum, she was reinforcing the noble cause of assessing the impact of COVID-19 on HIV responses, especially for the most vulnerable who are living with HIV.
She said the SADC PF has a membership of 15 SADC National Parliaments in Southern Africa and has since its inception been an ardent proponent of the rights of PLHIV.
She added that the Forum was committed to spearheading social change through inter-parliamentary collaboration, particularly in areas which pose the most pernicious challenges and require corrective action through Parliaments.
“The Forum thus welcomes the resolution of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights at its 69th Ordinary Session last December 2021 to reconstitute the Committee on the protection of the rights of PLHIV and those who are at risk, vulnerable to, or are affected by HIV,” she said.
Mmandu-Sekgoma said the work of the Committee can go a long way in spearheading the domestication of soft laws that can assist to protect PLHIV, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and its Protocol on the rights of women in Africa, which both enshrine the right to health which would include access to essential medicines for HIV and other medical conditions.
She highlighted that the event coincided with the International Day of Parliamentary, which is celebrated annually on 30 June.
“It is befitting that the Forum can engage on the rights of PLHIV under the auspices of the Committee, especially as Parliaments are at the centre stage of reform initiatives regarding PLHIV.
“On this day, the SADC Forum celebrates parliamentary democracy with its Member Parliaments, and reminisces that democracy is an avenue to resolve conflicts and find solutions, including in the realm of public health,” she noted.
Mmandu-Sekgoma said the SADC Parliamentary Forum believes the work of the Committee can go a long way in spearheading the domestication of soft laws that can assist in protecting PLHIV.
These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and its Protocol on the rights of women in Africa, which both enshrine the right to health which would include access to essential medicines for HIV and other medical conditions.
She said that from the SADC-PF perspective, this collaboration with the Committee is most appreciated given that the Forum has itself adopted soft law in the form of several norms and standards which aim to protect PLHIV.
“Indeed, the SADC Model Law on HIV has been one of the main regional instruments which have helped SADC member states domesticate laws on the protection of patients living with HIV while being guided by international human rights principles and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights,” Mmandu-Sekgoma added.
The SG said the SADC Model Law on HIV is spot on with regards to confidentiality provisions, epidemiological surveillance, and the need to ensure access to quality medicines at affordable prices.
“It proposes to infuse human rights standards into HIV legislation, such as the principle of informed consent and the non-criminalisation of HIV transmission, much in line with the principles emanating from decisions of the African Commission.”
“In 2018, the Forum also adopted the Minimum Standards for Key Populations in the context of HIV/AIDS, which also complements the SADC Model Law with a focus on key populations who are the most vulnerable segments of society that are affected by HIV/AIDS,” she told those attending the event.
“I wish to highlight that with the advent of COVID-19 in Africa in the beginning of 2020, much of the gains made in assisting PLHIV were lost. This is mainly because health budgets have been tightened or simply sacrificed at the altar of the greater good, which involved injecting funds in COVID-19 related medical equipment, and financially assisting the economic recovery,” she recalled.
She added that since economic resources are scarce, prioritisation of COVID-19 resulted in lesser concern for PLHIV and key populations.
As a result, during confinement periods, reports were rife that PLHIV had lesser access to ARVs, and many had their treatments interrupted or stopped altogether because of travel restrictions that hampered their own movement, or consignment issues that stopped supply lines.
This has been compounded with the recent inflationary rise in commodity prices which have caused pharmaceutical products to become unaffordable for many of the people that need them.
“In addition, there are alleged contra-indications on some COVID-19 vaccines for PLHIV and some individuals do not take the vaccines for want of better or more accurate information, or simply out of sheer apprehension,” Mmandu-Sekgoma explained.
She said the Committee on PLHIV under the aegis of the African Commission, has thus been revived at the right time to address these issues and recommend solutions to the Commission for further action by the African Union.
“During this session, I am confident that both public and private stakeholders will join hands and work together to address the underlying determinants that prevent PLHIV from securing adequate treatment, especially in the trail of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would encourage participants to reflect on ways and avenues to further engage parliaments on public health issues, particularly since domestication is a matter that calls for parliamentary attention.”
Mmandu-Sekgoma stated that as Parliaments are at the helm of the State, they are ideally situated to enact progressive HIV legislation, reinforce HIV budgets, exercise oversight on measures taken by the government and represent communities.
“Parliament as an institution represents an organ that is constitutionally mandated to exercise checks and balances on the executive and hold government to account on HIV/AIDS measures,” she said.
If parliaments make the right to health a legally enforceable right, this will tremendously help to fulfil the right to health as contained in the African Charter, as well as implement Sustainable Development Goal 3 on Health and well-being and the health aspirations set out in the AU’s Africa Agenda 2063, she said.
“While the domestication of the right to health and the protection of PLHIV is a progressive process, I am convinced that this Second Continental Conference will be critical to building the momentum and ensuring that partners mutually support each other to make headway in realising initiatives to protect PLHIV,” Mmandu-Sekgoma argued.