Uganda: ‘Human rights will suffer’ under new HIV/AIDS law (update)

Update: December 3rd

The United Nations Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, Elizabeth Mataka – and NGOs that include the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/Aids (Uganet) and ActionAID – have added to the many voices urging Uganda to reconsider its proposed HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill.

The Daily Monitor reports that Ms Mataka told journalists in Kampala yesterday:

“I emphasise the importance of creating a bigger and social environment conducive for HIV prevention and to refrain from laws that criminalise the transmission of HIV and stigmatise certain groups in the population. These laws can only fuel the epidemic further and undermine an effective response to HIV.”

Dorah Musinguzi, acting Executive Director of Uganet stated:

“We are cognisant of the fact that the draft Bill contains provisions that seek to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic but we need a law on the basis of which rights can be claimed and duties articulated in the context of HIV/AIDS. AIDS is no longer just a disease but a human rights issue. The law should be carefully crafted to find the right balance between promoting the public health while safeguarding and promoting human rights.

Original post: November 6th

A group of more than 50 Ugandan and international organizations and individuals have released a report criticising many of the provisions in the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill which is on its way to becoming law in Uganda.

A press release from Human Rights Watch (HRW) begins

The report criticizes repressive provisions in the legislation as contrary to the goal of universal access to HIV prevention, care, and treatment. The proposed law includes mandatory testing for HIV and forced disclosure of HIV status. It also criminalizes the willful transmission of HIV, the failure to “observe instructions on prevention and treatment,” and misleading statements on preventing or controlling HIV.

Worryingly, the latest version of the bill, released a few days ago, has now a added provision criminalising attempted transmission, which “further opens the door for abusive prosecutions”, HRW notes.

However “failure to inform one’s sexual partners of HIV status is no longer criminalised” along with the rather interesting provision that would have criminalised “failure to take reasonable steps and precautions to protect oneself from HIV transmission.”

Some might argue if criminalisation of HIV exposure or transmission remains in the Bill, why not allow for the prosecution of someone who does not protect oneself from HIV? That way, the law focuses on equal responsibility for HIV transmission/acquisition.

However, in a high prevalence country like Uganda (where an estimated 5.4% of the adult population is living with HIV) this would be unworkable, and would criminalise pretty much everyone who has unprotected sex, or at least is diagnosed HIV-positive – obviously a major backwards move, as this would remove any incentive for testing.

The HRW press release also focuses on the potential for criminalisation of HIV exposure and transmssion to disproportionately affect women, even though many lawmakers believe these laws protect them.

The report also highlighted how laws that criminalize HIV transmission can result in disproportionate prosecution of women because more women are tested as part of pre- or ante-natal medical care and therefore know their HIV status. Women’s inability to safely negotiate condom use or disclosure to partners who might have been the source of their infection is not recognized in the bill as defenses against criminal penalties. Women who transmit HIV to their infants after birth via breast milk would also be subject to criminal prosecution, the report says.

“Women and girls have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS,” said Joseph Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “My fear is that mandatory testing and disclosure will lead to prosecution and violence instead of treatment and care.”

Last month a Ugandan MP introduced a separate Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would impose the death penalty on HIV-positive gay men in Uganda if they have sex with another man.

The proposals have been roundly criticised by pretty much every human rights and HIV organisation in the world.