Human rights must be at the centre of the global HIV effort in the Caribbean – Remembering Robert Carr

Technical Team of the PANCAP R9 Global Fund "Vulnerablised" Groups Project
The renowned Caribbean activist Robert Carr passed away just over a year ago at the age of 48. He became known in the Caribbean and later internationally for his advocacy work by giving a voice to people who have been silenced and made invisible through systematic social exclusion. These include sex workers, gay and other men who have sex with men, marginalized youth, drug users, and prisoners.
Robert Carr firmly believed that HIV is a by-product of social inequalities. Robert spent his life calling for institutional and structural change that would turn the global rhetoric about human rights into rights realised at the grass roots. He was not afraid of calling out poor utilisation of AIDS resources and rampant and institutionalised homophobia, and he inspired activists the world over to demand change.
It is near impossible to continue Robert Carr’s advocacy work with the same style and flair he embodied, but he has left the Caribbean with a rich advocacy legacy to guide our attempt to continue without him.
Robert tireless talks about ensuring human rights were more than rhetoric and banal lines in a speech. but embodied in the approach taken to address the needs of the marginalised people of the Caribbean and the wider world. For him, the HIV epidemic was exacerbated by social inequalities. Robert saw clearly that rights violations towards sex workers, men who have sex with men, drug users, women, and youth in difficult situations, were a key driver that fuelled the concentrated and generalised epidemics within our society.
Robert consistently highlighted the interconnection between social exclusion and people’s inability to access HIV services. He was key in orchestrating Human Rights Watch’s now well-known 2004 report, ‘Hated to Death’, which highlighted how homophobia and violence was driving the HIV epidemic in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Robert repeatedly made the point that homophobia and discrimination perpetrated against marginalized communities in the Caribbean was at odds with the Caribbean’s rich history of resistance, anti-colonialism and anti-racism struggles. As he said to a roomful of activists at the International AIDS Conference, held in Vienna in 2010:
" Many of us are coming from countries where as part of our independence movements there were all kinds of rhetoric about ‘power to the people’, about inclusion, about a new way of working…but somehow when it comes to our populations all of that gets parked to the side. Somehow on those populations the kind of brutality that police, for example, meet out to subjugated populations is appropriate when it comes to us ...
That has to stop."
Robert Carr believed fundamentally that HIV and AIDS responses should be community-led and controlled and must respond to community needs. He was the main architect of the Vulnerabilised Groups Project; it is a legacy to his drive and determination.
Robert Carr worked hard to ensure that donors and national responses focused RIGHT, on vulnerabilised populations most in need of funding and struggling to combat a concentrated epidemic
Robert Carr helped the HIV Collaborative Fund / ITPC and the amfAR MSM Initiative and other international grant-makers develop processes that were not only responsive to community needs but under community control, counter to the overt medicalisation of HIV that was then the model of the AIDS response.
Robert Carr’s life and work in the Caribbean proves to us that the tradition of rights-claiming and activism that took our nations to independence is still very much alive. His view on the importance of the centrality of rights in the HIV discourse is in line with a growing body of international evidence which demonstrates that rights protection results in improved public health.
In a panel discussion in which Robert participated at the last International AIDS Conference entitled “Is AIDS Activism Dead?”, he said:
" There is a lot of money…if you really look concretely at what the HIV response is funding, what you see is a lot of workshops, for example, and a lot of documents being produced. Very often what is really needed is a kind of different strategy, a different kind of response. The ability to confront, the ability to be confrontational but to be supported in your confrontation, financially for example, so (we need) more human rights based activism…"
During his life, Robert Carr advanced an integrated approach to working with key populations, building solidarity among vulnerabilised populations by mobilising around common concerns or causes. The Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition is testament to this belief that a gay man or sex worker can come together in solidarity to respond to HIV and AIDS because they both suffer marginalisation and stigma and discrimination and understand best the drivers of the epidemic in their communities.
As Robert Carr said:
" We are all connected. We may believe we have nothing to do with a gay person, nothing to do with a sex worker, nothing to do with a drug-user, nothing to do with a prisoner, but it’s not true! We are part of a fabric of society, and as part of that fabric, what is happening in one part of that fabric/society affects the rest of it "

Team of the PANCAP R9 Global Fund "Vulnerablised" Groups  Project