In mid-April, worldwide protests forced an international cartel of pharmaceutical giants to withdraw a lawsuit against the South African government. The suit–an effort by “Big Pharma” to protect its enormous profits–sought to block implementation of a 1997 South African law that would make it easier to acquire lifesaving medicines for more than 4 million South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Like the proponents of apartheid before them, these companies acted to maintain the rules of a system that denies the value of black lives in favor of minority privilege. The result in Africa has been murder by patent.
The global pattern of AIDS deaths–2.4 million in sub-Saharan Africa last year, out of 3 million worldwide; only 20,000 in North America but most in minority communities–also evokes the racial order of the old South Africa. To date, access to lifesaving medicines and care for people living with HIV and AIDS have been largely determined by race, class, gender and geography. AIDS thus points to more fundamental global inequalities than those involving a single disease, illuminating centuries-old patterns of injustice. Indeed, today’s international political economy–in which undemocratic institutions systematically generate economic inequality–should be described as “global apartheid.”
Global apartheid, stated briefly, is an international system of minority rule whose attributes include: differential access to basic human rights; wealth and power structured by race and place; structural racism, embedded in global economic processes, political institutions and cultural assumptions; and the international practice of double standards that assume inferior rights to be appropriate for certain “others,” defined by location, origin, race or gender.
Global apartheid thus defined, we believe, is more than a metaphor. The concept captures fundamental characteristics of the current world order missed by such labels as “neoliberalism,” “globalization” or even “corporate globalization.” Most important, it clearly defines what is fundamentally unacceptable about the current system, strips it of the aura of inevitability and puts global justice and democracy on the agenda as the requirements for its transformation.
When delegates and demonstrators gather in New York for the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS on June 25, the future of global apartheid will be the subtext underlying the millions of words exchanged. Shooting ahead of the world’s response for twenty years, the AIDS pandemic is now exposing old fault lines as well as new fissures. That is why the debate on AIDS is increasingly becoming a debate on what kind of world we want to have: a world that nurtures our common humanity or a system that protects and promotes global minority rule.
In coming months the themes of AIDS, debt, racism and control of the world economy will be considered and debated at multiple global gatherings. At the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy, in July, the leaders of rich countries will meet to consider financing for the new Global AIDS Fund as well as next steps in the failed debt reduction plan for poor countries. The World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, at the end of August will give new attention to the long-ignored demands of Africans and descendants of Africans for reparations for slavery, colonialism and contemporary racism. The World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Washington in October are likely to witness renewed battles between protesters and the financiers of global apartheid. And the World Trade Organization’s Seattle follow-up meeting in Qatar in November will gather the countries that most benefit from global apartheid together with those that do not (as far away from the street activists as possible).