Why language matters
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.