Why language matters

Progress on cen­ter­ing human rights in health has been won, in part, through shifts in lan­guage—to pre­vent rever­sals, we need to iden­tify, delimit and defend key lan­guage for the HIV response as well as related sex­ual and repro­duc­tive health chal­lenges

Lan­guage choices in inter­na­tional com­mit­ments are a life-or-death mat­ter for mil­lions of peo­ple. They both reflect and deter­mine whose lives mat­ters, whose health will be pri­ori­tised, and whose rights must be respected. Over the course of decades, bet­ter lan­guage has opened a clear­ing for human rights and health in an inter­na­tional sys­tem that is oth­er­wise dense with jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and indif­fer­ence for the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, stig­ma­ti­sa­tion and mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion of peo­ple whose iden­ti­ties, behav­iours and needs have tra­di­tion­ally been con­strued as threats, prob­lems and dis­trac­tions.

This space for human rights, health and, in par­tic­u­lar, sex­ual and repro­duc­tive health rights needs to be pre­served against encroach­ment from alter­na­tive lan­guage rooted in notions patri­archy, het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity, cis­nor­ma­tiv­ity, racism and ableism. This oppo­si­tion lan­guage is grounded in argu­ments that falsely depict recog­ni­tion and respect for human rights as con­trary to sov­er­eignty, fam­ily life, reli­gion or tra­di­tion. As part of this strat­egy, those seek­ing to revise and unset­tle the long­stand­ing agree­ment on rights-based responses mas­quer­ade as the defend­ers of con­sen­sus by char­ac­ter­is­ing rights-affirm­ing lan­guage as novel, unset­tled and polit­i­cally con­tentious. Hold­ing and advanc­ing the line for rights-affirm­ing and evi­dence-based responses to HIV and related sex­ual and repro­duc­tive health chal­lenges despite this oppo­si­tion requires we know the key lan­guage used in inter­na­tional agree­ment as well as its inter­na­tion­ally agreed upon mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance.

Lan­guage mat­ters to the oppo­nents of human rights. It needs to mat­ter as much, if not more, to the pro­po­nents and defend­ers of human rights.