“Unjust, racist”: UNAIDS chief Winnie Byanyima's tweet embarasses Swiss and Canadian authorities

"If *Winnie Byanyima*—the executive director of UNAIDS who holds under-secretary-general rank within the U.N.—can’t get through to Geneva airport with ease, then no African has a shot.”

Was UNAIDS’s Director Byanyima racially profiled at Geneva airport in July? That’s what was explicitly suggested by an angry tweet she sent while trying to board a plane to Montreal. Swiss authorities are playing the whole incident down, but from Geneva to Canada, Byanyima’s words have prompted others to share their stories of similar treatment.

“I’m @ Geneva airport, at the gate, boarding pass in hand on my way to #unaids2022, I’m almost refused to board, all docs scrutinized over &over again, calls made…. I board last. Hundreds of people in the South have been denied visas & won’t attend #UNAIDS2022. Unjust, racist!” wrote Winnie Byanyima in an emotional Twitter post on July 27th.

Shared outrage on Twitter

Byanyima’s tweet set off a chain reaction—the complaint was retweeted nearly 2,000 times and liked by more than 5,000: “Always feel a little uneasy overegging this pudding for obvious reasons, but if *Winnie Byanyima*—the executive director of UNAIDS who holds under-secretary-general rank within the U.N.—can’t get through to Geneva airport with ease, then no African has a shot,” commented Chris O. Ògúnmọ́dẹdé, associate editor at the World Politics Review, a writer with more than 10K followers.

Pascal Sim, a Geneva-based UN public information officer, expressed bewilderment: “A senior @UN official, with the rank of Under-Secretary-General, traveling to an international conference is not immune to discrimination,” he noted.

Another woman claimed that her husband had had a similar experience: “Same thing happened to my partner in May at Geneva airport. He also works for the UN and was leaving to visit family. The staff was aggressive, rough, and refused to give their ID. My kids heard how the officer talked to their dad and are still shocked and now fear to travel,” she explained.

Wealthy countries and UNAIDS conference privileges

Other users of the platform used Byanyima’s tweets to deplore the fact that the UNAIDS annual gatherings were held in privileged locations and that visas had in some instances been prohibitively expensive or impossible to obtain for participants from the Global South—as in the case of Tian Johnson. The South-African activist was prevented from attending the same Montreal meeting Byanyima was flying to. “After nearly 20 thousand dollars in VISA fees, biometric costs, travel back & forth, public fights for visas & today’s refusal by @UnitedAirlines_ for us to board, we are cancelling our @AIDS_conference participation to avoid further loss. Canada and @iasociety must account,” he demanded.

Matthew Hodson, executive director of Aidsmap, echoed the UNAIDS director’s criticism of Canadian authorities: “I am looking forward to learning with comrades from all over the world at #AIDS2022—but it is infuriating that many will be absent, voices silenced, from many of the countries with the greatest knowledge of #HIV, as a result of racist entry policies,” he complained.

This was a stance also paralleled by Oni Blackstock, a renowned HIV physician, researcher, and founder of Health Justice: “@aids_conference should host its conferences in locations where *everyone* can travel and not just folks from wealthy countries. Even the Executive Director of @UNAIDS was given a difficult time. Horrendous,” she said.

Geneva Airport deplores “misunderstanding”

Who was responsible for preventing Byanyima from boarding her plane until the last minute? To this day, the question remains unanswered, and Winnie Byanyima’s silence so far about the episode makes it difficult to investigate the incident further.

A spokesperson for the Geneva Airport tells The G|O that it had been trying unsuccessfully to identify the individuals who interacted with UNAIDS’ director, and to reconstruct the sequence of events. “Since we were made aware of the tweet last month, we have reached out to Mrs. Byanyima in hopes of gaining more insight on the incident and to what extent her tweet refers to Geneva Airport, as her comment was rather generic. For the moment, she has not responded. As long as we [have no additional] information, we can’t determine if there was fault and in that case who might be involved. We do not tolerate racism at Geneva Airport and deplore the misunderstanding,” Geneva’s Cointrin airport spokeswoman Sandy Bouchat told us, adding that “the incident might have been overplayed.”

“In the end, Mrs. Byanyima got on her plane. She might have been slightly delayed in her boarding process, but this is due to the fact that Canada imposes additional Covid verifications. Generally speaking, other passengers have had similar experiences these past few weeks.”

Canada’s strict entry criteria

Isabelle Dubois, Communications Advisor for the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) Department of Canada, insists that the visa policy for the event was not racist: “While IRCC is able to expedite visa processing, the department cannot provide special treatment and waive the visa requirement for event participants and officials. IRCC deals with thousands of applications from people from around the world every day. We are committed to a fair and non-discriminatory application of immigration procedures. As part of our commitment to anti-racism, equity and inclusion, we are looking closely at those criteria through the lens of how they impact racialized applicants, to ensure our programs and policies are fair, equitable and culturally sensitive. We take this responsibility seriously.”

Winnie Byanyima has not responded to The G|O’s calls, emails, and social media requests for comment.