In addition, he said, the failure to address sexual violence against women adequately has hastened the spread of HIV.
The talk was hosted by the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition and the Anthropology 1825 Speaker Series in connection with World AIDS Day.
“I’ve always believed in multilateralism,” said Lewis, who is also a former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and deputy director of UNICEF. “But some dreadful things have been done through the negligence and inertia of the multilateral system.”
He cited the World Health Organization’s 3 by 5 Initiative, which many countries criticized, as an example of an intervention that brought out the “damnably rivalrous” nature of international assemblies.
Lewis also spoke of the recent study by Harvard researchers that found that over 300,000 South Africans died between 2000 and 2005 due to the lack of implementation of antiretroviral treatments. He said that he and Dr. Jim Y. Kim, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, were the only United Nations officials who criticized the South African government during that period.
“Everyone knew that tens of thousands were dying unnecessarily and there was not a word publicly from the secretary general of the U.N. or the executive director of UNICEF,” Lewis said, adding that he hopes former South African president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister are indicted by the International Court of Justice.
“There are too many graveyards to allow them to live with impunity,” he said.
Although Lewis addressed many aspects of the struggle against AIDS, he said, “The single most important struggle on the planet is the struggle for gender equality.”
“Rape is no longer a weapon of war,” he said. “It is a strategy of war...In my own view there is nothing more grotesque happening in this world at this moment.”
After describing atrocities that are being committed in countries like Liberia and South Africa, he said, “I can’t believe that I’m witnessing this...and the whole world knows and does virtually nothing.”
At the end of his talk, the audience gave Lewis a lengthy standing ovation, and he stayed to answer questions.
“You say you alternate between rage and despair. How do you maintain your sanity?” one audience member asked.
“There are times when I feel: what in God’s name can be done?” Lewis responded. “But on the other hand the people are so astonishingly courageous and strong...That’s what sustains me.”