At SADC-PF parliamentarians meeting in South Africa, Patrick Eba of UNAIDS says HIV criminalization is a setback to regional AIDS efforts

The criminalisation of HIV simply undermines the remarkable global scientific advances and proven public health strategies that could open the path to vanquishing AIDS by 2030, Patrick Eba from the human rights and law division of UNAIDS told SADC-PF parliamentarians meeting in South Africa.

Restating a remark made by Justice Edwin Cameron of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Eba said: “HIV criminalisation makes it more difficult for those at risk of HIV to access testing and prevention. There is simply no evidence that it works. It undermines the remarkable scientific advances and proven public health strategies that open the path to vanquishing AIDS by 2030.”

SADC-PF has undertaken, as part of its commitment to advocacy for sexual reproductive health rights, an ambitious 90-90-90 initiative in east and southern Africa, with the help of the media, to ensure that all people living with HIV should know their status by 2020; that by 2020 90 percent of all people diagonised with HIV will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy; and that by 2020 90 percent of all people living with HIV and receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.

He implored parliamentarians from SADC-PF member states to advocate for laws that would decriminalise HIV after he noted several African countries had HIV-specific criminal laws that resulted in arrests and prosecutions of those convicted of spreading HIV intentionally.

Eba said calls for the criminalisation of intentional or wilful spreading of HIV stem from the fact there are high rates of rape and sexual violence, and most notably in post-conflict countries such as the DRC there exist promises of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation.

He gave an example of one case of miscarriage of justice involving a woman in Gabon who was wrongfully arrested after a man accused her of having infected him with HIV, but after spending several months in detention she was actually found to be HIV-negative after she went for testing.

Eba appealed to SADC-PF parliamentarians to consider decriminalisation of HIV on the basis that antiretroviral treatment (ART) has a 96 percent rate in reducing the risk of HIV transmission.

“End criminalisation to end AIDS,” he implored SADC-PF parliamentarians who included Agnes Limbo of the RDP, Ida Hoffmann of Swapo and Ignatius Shixwameni of APP, all delegated by Namibia to the conference.

Eba also referred to the motion unanimously adopted in November 2015 that was moved by Duma Boko of Botswana and that was seconded by Ahmed Shaik Imam of South Africa who reaffirmed SADC member states’ obligation to respect, fulfil and promote human rights in all endevours undertaken for the prevention and treatment of HIV.

That motion had also called on SADC member states to consider rescinding and reviewing punitive laws specific to the prosecution of HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure. It also reiterated the role by parliamentarians to enact laws that support evidence-based HIV prevention and treatment interventions that conform with regional and international human rights frameworks.

Eba said since HIV infection is now a chronic treatable health condition, no charges of “murder” or “manslaughter” should arise and that HIV non-disclosure and exposure should not be criminalised in the absence of transmission, and that significant risk of transmission should be based on best available scientific and medical evidence.

On the other hand, he said, there is no significant risk in cases of consistent condom use practice or other forms of safer sex and effective HIV treatment.

The SADC-PF joint sessions also addressed the issues of criminalisation of termination of pregnancy. The joint sessions ended on Thursday with a raft of recommendations for the ministerial meetings.

Originally published in New Era.