A well-known long-time advocate and activist on HIV and human rights, Anand Grover has argued hundreds of cases relating to the rights of people living with HIV, including rights of sex workers and the first HIV case in India relating to employment law before leading the Naz Foundation's legal case for the repeal of Section 377. He is also the Director of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS in India which he co-founded in 1981 with his wife Indira Jaisingh. She is the first woman to be appointed Additional Solicitor General of India in 2009.
Grover is a man who doesn’t mince his words. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Highest Attainable Standard of Mental and Physical Health, his warm persona and outspoken opinions punctuate the humid atmosphere at the Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility (CARAM) conference in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month as he talks to us about the HIV Bill in India, access to medicine and why he considers himself a self-described “honorary gay”.
Anand Grover. Photo: United Nations Information Service Vienna
æ: You are the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Highest Attainable Standard of Mental and Physical Health. That’s quite a mouthful. Can you tell us about what your role entails?
Anand: Well, the right to health is a very board area. The UN has two wings, one is the General Assembly where a lot of the political decisions are taken, and then there is the Human Rights Council (HRC), which is the Human Rights wing of the UN. The HRC appoints what is known as Special Rapporteurs and there are two types of Special Rapporteurs. One, are connected mandate holders which are things like the Right to Health, Right to Water, Housing etc. So there are social and cultural rights and then there are economical rights. Then they’re other mandate holders, which are in their respective countries, countries in conflict, such as North Korea and Sudan. These Rapporteurs are appointed by HRC for two terms, each of three years. Now this requires the thematic mandate holders, such as the Right to Health to do three functions.
Every year, we have to undertake two country missions. So we go to a country, depending on the consent of the country, and examine aspects of the mandate, such as the Right to Health and examine issues such as the rights of LGBTI and Health, or the rights of sex workers or the rights of migrants. A report is then sent to the HRC and the idea is that in the spirit of dialogue and cooperation, try to change the bad aspects and push forward the good aspects. Every country has good, bad and ugly aspects. So you encourage the good aspects, caution them on the not so good aspects and tell them the bad aspects are really bad and that you have to change.
The second function to present thematic reports. I have come to KL for a conference on migration and health so I have to submit a report. The report on migration and health will be submitted and presented in June to the HRC.
Finally we have to attend to complaints. Anyone, anywhere in the world can come to me and say the Right to Health is being violated. The water is not good, the river is muddy, air is polluted, there is too much noise, or people of transgender are not getting access to medicines. Then those complaints are converted to what is known as the Communications, which may be urgent, like a Palestinian not being about to cross the border to Israel, where he can access urgent health services or a regular Communication which can take its own time depending on the country’s response.
The job of Special Rapporteur is pro bono, you are not paid anything and it is very taxing. The code of conduct requires that you cannot take a penny for it and the reason being is that we have to be independent. We are not bound to the state, or the NGOs or even to the UN. So we can speak our mind, and I have a very independent mind.
æ: As a UN Special Rapporteur, what are some of the key issues that you looking at in relation to the Asian LGBT community?
Anand: Well, I only have to look at the Right to Health but, as you know I am very much concerned about minorities whether they are sexual minorities or otherwise.
I got into HIV issues fortuitously. I got into LGBTI issues fortuitously. I am an honorary gay, honorary sex worker and honorary drug user and an honorary migrant. For me, it enriches me tremendously to find people who are battling in the same area on the issue of Human Rights.
In terms of the LGBTI community, the main issue for me has been to decriminalise a lot of the laws and to decriminalise the whole behaviour. So a lot of my reports have been on this issue because if you decriminalise these behaviours and those associated with sexual minorities, sex workers or drug users, you really are trying to achieve a paradigm shift.
The next thing would be looking at things that would guarantee equality in all spheres of life, whether it is marriage, non-marriage or succession to property or otherwise. But the first hurdle for a lot of countries is to decriminalise because that is imposed by colonialism and their religious ideologies are imposing these kinds of sanctions. But in actuality, our societies didn’t have those things. The British imposed section 377 and 377A and left their legacy, even the British have struck it off in the 1960s and we are still battling with it as if it is part of our culture.
æ: The process to start drafting a HIV bill for India started in 2002. What does this bill hope to achieve and more importantly why is this bill important to you?
Anand: HIV is an issue that is close to my heart and we have done a lot of work around HIV ranging from the rights of HIV-positive people which is in the bill that we are working on but the government has been dilly dallying so I am I have very disappointed with that. But I hope that this coming year they will put the final touches to it. They have been able to decriminalise sexual minority behaviour and waiting for the final judgment from the Supreme Court on the appeal from the opposing side.
On drug use, we have been able to make sure that the death penalty is not imposed in every sphere. In sex work, there is a big battle but we don’t know how it would turn out. In the area of access to medicine, they are doing really well. We succeeded yesterday in revoking a patent for a drug for Hepatitis C which impacts drug users. The drug is called Pegasus and Pegasus was a patented drug and is no longer patented now. The other thing is that India changed the law in regards to the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) in 2005. We introduced a particular amendment to that which allowed for access to medicines which is known as 3D. Now that has been challenged by Novartis and we are now in the final leg of that. We have succeeded throughout from the Appellate Board to the High Court and now it is in the Supreme Court and I am arguing in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and we hope to succeed on that front because it would mean that generic medicines which are high quality and are safe will be available to everybody, including the poor.
æ: This type of work requires long hours and a lot of effort. What keeps you going?
Anand: A love for my work and doing something for people. I am a leftist. I have been a leftist since my student days when I was 17, which is not a good thing nowadays, and have remained a leftist. There are a lot of people who oppose my views but I am happy to communicate with those people and I have a very good conversation. From my student days I remember Iranian students were divided into three camps, the supporters of Shah Pahlavi, the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Communists and all of them wished to come to me as an arbitrator. So am I lucky that I have the ability to talk to anybody, even the person who opposes me and engage in good conversation and still be happy about it.
æ: You have been in this role for about four years now, what are some of the challenges that you face in your line of work?
Anand: The challenge has always been to persuade people to my point of view and that’s not easy because you are talking to people who want the status quo to remain. But when they see that you have decriminalised sexual behaviour which includes sex work and LGBT sexual practices you make the world a lot more richer by having people who are otherwise criminalised and put into a hole where they can’t express themselves or be part of society without the fear of an arrest. Society becomes richer because there is a variety of people and views and then they realise the value of it and they what they have missed.
æ: Is there anything the UN can do to put pressure on governments who still have discriminatory laws?
Anand: The UN can only hold a yardstick and say that you are not in line with equality principles and freedom of speech etc. Rapportuers who are invited to a country can have a much more persuasive view but the HRC also has other mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review systems and treaties which are ratified by the countries.
After long period of pressure, countries have ratified and are opening up. Things are changing. I always say what was the situation 10 years ago? It has improved. There are difficulties and things are not yet what we want them to be but still they are improving and we cannot give up. I believe that the new generation wants every right in the world. They want equality.
I came to Singapore and Malaysia in 1977 and it was a different world. The people in Singapore and Malaysia back had different views of their neighbours but now people are sitting on the same table and saying what are our problems, what are our achievements and how can we move forward. Today, we are talking about things together and not allowing our nationalities to divide us.
We can do things much better, together.
æ: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Anand: I wish that there would be more young people would be willing to commit themselves to these issues. I am unhappy that there is not enough funding for that and I hope that will be ratified in the future. But you don’t need money to believe in something. Follow your passions and beliefs and so long as there is a vision of humanity improving, the world will be a better place to live it.
Nicholas Deroose is the Communications Manager for George Hwang LL.C. , a Singapore-based law firm with a special interest in the intersection of Intellectual Property and Human Rights.