President Obama is facing criticism from an HIV/AIDS group for not yet committing to speak at the upcoming International AIDS Conference and not doing more to confront the global and domestic epidemic. Other groups, meanwhile, are calling the criticism of Obama misguided.
On Monday, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation held a news conference in D.C. at the offices of Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms Associates to call on Obama to speak at the conference and take more action to confront HIV/AIDS. The organization provides advocacy and medical care to more than 166,000 people with HIV/AIDS in 26 countries.
Tom Myers, chief of public affairs and general counsel for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, was particularly critical of Obama for not yet confirming that he’ll make an appearance at the upcoming 19th International AIDS Conference, which will will take place at D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center during the week of July 22.
“We are here to express our concern and dismay that, less than two weeks from the start of the conference, President Obama has yet to commit to attending it,” Myers said. “In the 20-odd year history of this conference, it is virtually obligatory for the head of state of the host nation to address the conference at its opening.”
It’s the first time since 1990 that the conference will take place in the United States. Organizers agreed to hold the conference in D.C. after the lifting of the HIV travel ban in 2009, which had prevented HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the United States. The process for removing the ban started under the Bush administration through legislative action and ended under the Obama administration.
As of Monday, the conference hadn’t yet announced whether it had received confirmation that Obama would speak. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said he had no updates on whether Obama will attend the conference.
Former President Bill Clinton has agreed to speak at the conference this year as well as former first lady Laura Bush. High-ranking administration officials who are set to speak include Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Eric Goosby, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.
It’s not unprecedented for the head of state to be absent from the conference, according to organizers. The Canadian prime minister didn’t speak when the conferences were held in that country in 1996 in Vancouver or 2006 in Toronto, nor did Spain’s prime minister attend the 2002 conference in Barcelona. In 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush didn’t address the conference in San Francisco, but then-Secretary of Health & Human Services Louis Sullivan delivered remarks at the closing ceremony.
While criticizing Obama for not confirming his attendance, Myers at the same time said the administration wasn’t doing enough to confront HIV/AIDS and said “it may be better if the president not attend the conference if he is coming without any concrete proposals to fix these problems.”