Denmark: HIV criminalisation exports stigma, writes Justice Edwin Cameron

Denmark’s leading broadsheet newspaper, Politiken, last week published an article by Justice Edwin Cameron of the South African Constitutional Court congratulating Denmarks’ recent suspension of its HIV-specific criminal statute, and asking that it considers abolishing it altogether – otherwise it risks being emulated in low-income settings that follow the country’s example of an otherwise strong human rights record.

Justice Cameron wrote a similar article for a Norwegian newspaper in 2009 which led to a rethink of the use of Paragraph 155 (the ‘HIV paragraph’) and the establishment of an independent commission to explore the article’s revision.

I hear from my contacts in Denmark that there already some signs that the article has gained the attention of some high-level government ministers concerned about Denmark’s standing in the global HIV community.

Let’s hope it has a positive impact on Denmark’s ongoing government working group currently considering whether the only HIV-specific law in Western Europe should be revised or abolished.

The full text of Edwin Cameron’s article in English is below. The Danish original can be found here.

Debate: Denmark exports stigma
AIDS Foundation
Politiken 8th June 2011, Culture, page 6

INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY: Danish HIVlaw is in conflict with the UN

by Edwin Cameron

When South Africans think of Denmark, we see a country with the highest humanitarian standards that others look up to. I was therefore disturbed to realise recently that Denmark has one of the world’s harshest laws criminalising HIV: Penal Code Section 252, paragraph 2. This provision makes criminal anyone with a life threatening and incurable communicable disease who wilfully or negligently infects or exposes another to the risk of infection.

What is notable about the Danish law is that it includes mere exposure—which means that a person may be guilty even though there is no actual transmission. The penalty is severe—up to eight years of imprisonment. Today the law only covers people living with HIV — a vulnerable group that experiences much discrimination.

Denmark is among the world’s most generous contributors to UNAIDS, the UN agency that works to mitigate the impact of this mass worldwide epidemic. In addition, Denmark has signed the declaration on HIV and AIDS, adopted at the UN Special Session. But Denmark’s penal code is in conflict with both UNAIDS and the UN Declaration’s position.

UNAIDS has called on governments to limit criminalisation to cases where “a person knows his HIV positive status, acts with the intent to transmit HIV and actually transmits HIV’. In contrast, the Danish penal provision is precisely the kind of legislation that UNAIDS warns against.

We know that many developing countries pay attention to the more developed countries’ laws when they formulate their own. In Africa, my own continent, an increasing number of countries have adopted laws that criminalize HIV, with devastating consequences – not least for women. By maintaining its own discriminatory legislation Denmark in effect exports stigma.

But there are strong reasons why criminal laws and prosecutions are bad policy when it comes to AIDS.

1: Criminalisation is ineffective in relation to limiting the spread of HIV. In most cases the virus spreads when two people have sex, neither of them knowing that one of them has HIV. The fact that a penal provision is of no use here is a good reason to doubt whether it should remain on the statute book.

2: Criminal laws and prosecutions are poor substitutes for measures that can really control the epidemic. Experience shows us that well-considered public health programmes that offer counseling, testing and treatment are far more effective tools to prevent the spread of HIV.

3: Criminalisation does not protect women, but makes them victims. In Africa, most of those who know their HIV status are women, because most tests take place at antenatal health care sites. These laws have rightly been described as part of a ‘war on women’.

4: Many of these new laws in Africa, which are being adopted partly on the strength of Western European precedents, are extremely poorly drafted. For example, according to the ‘Model Law’ that many countries in East and West Africa have adopted, a person who is aware of being infected with HIV must inform “any sexual contact in advance” of this fact. But the law does not define “any sexual contact.” Is it holding hands? Kissing? Nor does the law say what “in advance” means.

5: Criminalisation increases stigma. From the first AIDS diagnosis 30 years ago, HIV has carried a mountainous burden of stigma. One overriding reason: the fact that HIV is sexually transmitted.  No other infectious disease is viewed with as much fear and repugnance. It is tragic that it is stigma that drives criminalisation.

6: Criminalisation has a deterrent effect on testing. AIDS is now a medically manageable disease, but why would someone want to know their HIV status when that knowledge may lead to prosecution? Criminalisation assumes the worst about people with HIV and punishes their vulnerability.

Denmark’s legislation also makes it difficult for a country that ought to be a world leader in non-discrimination to confront other countries’ laws.  For example, Denmark has contributed constructively in the international movement to abolish the travel restrictions for people with HIV.

The recent decision by the Danish Justice Minister, Lars Barfoed, to suspend the Danish Criminal Code provision on HIV on the grounds that people living with HIV on treatment today live much longer lives and the risk of transmission of the virus to others is much reduced is certainly a step in the right direction. I congratulate the Danish Government on this decision. The very positive developments in HIV treatment is indeed a good reason to radically reconsider whether Penal Code 252. 2 should exist at all.

Penal Code provisions are a piece of the puzzle that shows how a country treats its citizens. Let us fight stigma, discrimination and criminalisation – and fight for common sense, effective prevention and access to treatment.  Only in this way can we fight this global epidemic.

Edwin Cameron is a judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court who is himself living with HIV.