26 Nov 2010

Africa's peace efforts at risk from HIV/AIDS

Written by  Dawn Nagar

No. 157: Africa's peace efforts at risk from HIV/AIDS / Dawn Nagar / Business Day

Southern African and regional armed forces being established to keep peace across the continent lack coherent policies on preventing the spread of HIV. No mention of HIV/AIDS is made in the policy frameworks and peace and security memorandum agreed for the African Standby Force, the body that is supposed to intervene to quell and prevent violent conflict in Africa.

This omission is particularly glaring considering the increasing military readiness of the regional brigades that will make up the standby force and the high rates of HIV/AIDS among the national armies contributing to the brigades. In 2006, SA's Department of Defence said 30% of the 34,810 members tested for HIV/AIDS that year had contracted the virus. In some Southern African Development Community (Sadc) countries, as many as 40%-60% of soldiers have contracted HIV.

However, despite the alarming rates of HIV among the national militaries contributing to the brigade supplied to the standby force by the 15-member Sadc, it now stands on the verge of operational readiness. Earlier this month, the director of Sadc's Organ on Politics, Defence, and Security Co-operation, Tanki Mothae, praised the subregional standby brigade for having achieved brigade readiness and for successfully joining an exercise code named Amani Africa ("Peace Africa") that was established to assess the readiness of the standby force's command post in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The recent exercise tested the capacity of the African Union (AU) to intervene through the force, and could represent an encouraging step for peace and security. The brigade is now waiting for the AU to certificate its operational readiness.

However, the reality remains that the force and its military staff committee lack a comprehensive policy on HIV/AIDS, and full co-operation on the issue has yet to be agreed between the AU and Africa's five subregional blocs — Sadc, the Economic Community of West African States, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the Economic Community of Central African States, and the Arab-Maghreb Union.

The problem is magnified by the scale of the contribution the regional blocs are expected to make — each should provide a brigade of 3,500-5,000 troops, as well as 500 military observers for standby duty, and 240 police officers. Failure to address the issue may seriously undermine the capacity of regional brigades to keep the peace — for example, mission staff with HIV/AIDS may deplete available medical resources and/or potentially spread the virus through vulnerable civilian populations.

African armies have been addressing the issue of HIV as a matter of priority. At the subregional level, Sadc's Bridging Funding Facility is seeking to implement sound, practical policies, which are realistic and address the human rights of peacekeepers. In addition, Sadc should consider developing a common policy to tackle HIV/AIDS that addresses the length of time forces are deployed on peacekeeping missions. It may be worth considering a policy that provides a specific time frame for deployment of military personnel, incorporating exceptions for high-ranking officials who are overseeing the missions. Such a policy would reduce lengthy absences from home for peacekeepers, which have been shown to boost promiscuity and the potential spread of HIV.

Next week's World AIDS Day advocates the fulfillment of the 2001 United Nations Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, which pledges to make all efforts to stem the spread of the virus and support those living with it. The effect of HIV/AIDS was succinctly expressed to researchers in 2005 by a young soldier in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF): "Our young members believe that the SANDF can only go to war with a living, breathing, and bleeding enemy. Well, that is the kind of enemy our grandfathers went to war with, but we now live in a new world where poverty and disease kill more people than people who die in countries at war with each other. AIDS, coupled with poverty, can wipe out an entire family single-handedly. So who is the enemy now?"

Nagar is a researcher at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.


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