Punitive laws still hampering access to HIV-related services, says UN

Published: April 18, 2013

The meeting is hosted by UNAIDS and draws representatives from Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Presenter:Geraldine Coutts

Speaker: Prasada Rao, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Asia and the Pacific
RAO: Basically the laws are in two forms; one is criminalising the HIV transmission, some countries which criminalise HIV transmission that anything done by an HIV positive person is interpreted as transmitting the virus to some other person. The second type of laws are those that relate to the vulnerable populations, that is sex workers, men who have sex with men and injecting drug users. So when you criminalise these activities people who have these problems they can’t access services like prevention services like condoms, safe needles etc. They also can’t access treatment services like anti-viral treatment and mother-to-child transmission treatment. Because of this the progress of control on HIV world over and specifically in the Pacific Islands is getting impeded, and we’re reaching a stage where we can’t move further on this prevention and treatment activities without taking a serious look at the legal system operating not only on the books but also on the streets, that is the enforcement part by police and law enforcement authorities.
COUTTS: So are you asking for these laws to be decriminalised?
RAO: Yes basically the recommendation of the global commission on HIV and law which was setup a couple of years back and which had very specific recommendations, is to decriminalise these two activities, basically same sex behaviour and also sex work. And that means that sex between two consenting adults should not be criminalised that is the idea,  and countries which have done this very successfully have shown that they can control HIV AIDS much more effectively. I think we have the best examples in this region of Australia and New Zealand, which could completely bring down the amount of human infections to very, very low levels.
COUTTS: What about the people with HIV and AIDS who knowingly infect their partners? Where do they stand if you decriminalise this way?
RAO: There need not be a specific law for HIV only. Anybody who wilfully causes harm or hurt to another person can always be dealt with by the common law because every country has a penal  law, which talks about causing harm to another person. And that common law is good enough to treat those cases. But if you specifically have an HIV law criminalising HIV transmission then the tendency’s always to try and stigmatise that group, saying these are a group of criminals who are any time ready to infect other people. So that’s how criminalisation and stigmatisation are welded together. So in many countries the common law full applies to people who willfully transmit HIV to another  person.
COUTTS: Well you just mentioned stigmatisation there, it’s still a huge issue and it will be whether it’s criminalised or decriminalised that the problem of stigmatisation will still continue?
RAO: Yes, but the moment you decriminalise, the stigmatisation can be (word indistinct) because the moment you decriminalise the people will be bold enough to come out into open society and access services. And that to a certain extent helps in de-stigmatisation of these populations.
COUTTS: Well it’s probably been proofed through history that punitive laws don’t work, so apart from decriminalising what will work?
RAO: Apart from decriminalising you need basically activities at two levels; one I think is the opinion makers, the leaders, the policy makers, I think they need to be sensitised that you have to move positively in this. But the second thing is the pressure from the bottom, the civil society, they need to be very, very active. Some of the other worldwide and we’ve seen in this region also we’ve seen that the activism around HIV which we used to see very strongly in the 90s and early 2000, I think some are dying, I think that is a matter of great concern. And if we really want to tackle AIDS effectively we need to keep the pressure from civil society on from the communities and from the vulnerable groups.
COUTTS: So education programs will be key to this?
RAO: Absolutely, in fact sex education in schools for children is a very, very important part of the program. Again something which I think countries are still not doing adequately even though UNICEF and UNAIDS has very strongly advocated for the introduction of sex education in schools, many countries are still reluctant to do that. But that is the starting point I think where one has to take the first step.

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