A DELICATE BALANCE
Working to end punitive laws and policies that impact people living with HIV is never easy, but this year has been especially hard, as we fought to maintain that delicate balance between moving forward in our advocacy and preventing the erosion of our previous gains fuelled by the anti-rights movement and the growth of right-wing populism.
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we saw an increase in the number of reported HIV-related prosecutions: 86 cases in 18 countries. This compares with 49 cases in 16 countries last year and 54 cases in 20 countries in 2021. This year, as in previous years, the highest number of case reports come from the EECA region (Uzbekistan and Russia), followed by the United States (10 cases – a significant decrease) and the United Kingdom (5 cases – a worrying increase).
It is possible that we were seeing more case reports because there were actually more cases, but we must always consider these reported cases to be illustrative of what is likely to be a far more widespread, poorly documented use of criminal law against people living with HIV.
Although many people arrested or prosecuted were heterosexual men, we also saw a range of intersectional identities impacted by HIV criminalisation – particularly sex workers who may also have been transgender and/or people of colour and/or with a migration background. It is clear that a convergence of multiple levels of criminalisation, discrimination and other vulnerabilities leads to over-policing of the bodies and behaviours of people living with HIV.
Some of the most exciting and promising developments in 2023 came from Latin America. In June, Belize repealed its HIV-specific criminal law, enacted in 2001 but never applied, primarily to enable the country to be certified as having eliminated vertical transmission. And in August, Costa Rica’s People Living with HIV organisation pushed back against a parliamentarian’s proposal to reinstate an HIV criminalisation law.
It’s also clear that sustained advocacy by civil society in Mexico – which began in earnest when the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition supported the creation of the Mexican network in 2017 – is really making a difference. In March, the state of Nayarit repealed its infectious disease law that had mostly applied to people with HIV. The district of Mexico City is on its way to repeal a similar law. And another Mexican state, Baja California Sur, modernised the wording of the same law to attempt to destigmatise it, by removing the concept that communicable diseases are only prosecutable if sexually transmitted.
In November, a proposal for a new HIV criminalisation law in the state of Puebla was withdrawn following criticisms from HIV and human rights organisations, and a month later there are now proposals to reform the existing law. And civil society pressure to remove the federal HIV criminalisation law on constitutional grounds may have led to Mexico’s first trans congresswomen advocating for the repeal of the law in parliament. Given Mexico’s rights-based approach to SRHR – the country decriminalised abortion earlier this year – at least one of these repeal pathways are likely to succeed next year.
In the United States, we continued to see a marked reduction in the number of cases as the movement to repeal or modernise HIV criminalisation laws continued to grow due to ongoing, sustained advocacy by networks of people living with HIV with support from philanthropic funders as well as federal and state political leaders and public health institutions. Although, no states fully repealed their HIV-specific laws in 2023, and law reform proposals in Indiana, Minnesota, and North Dakota failed to pass, there were some important victories in Tennessee. Here, both law reform and strategic litigation bore fruit, the former by removing mandatory sex offender registration for those convicted under the HIV law, and the latter resulting in a ruling that Tennessee’s ‘aggravated prostitution’ statute violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Canada – another former global HIV criminalisation leader – continued to report fewer cases, with just one new reported case in 2023. As in the United States, this is the result of many years of sustained advocacy, although the federal government has still not responded formally to its 2022 public consultation on substantially reforming its approach to HIV criminalisation. The Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization, led by HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition partner, the HIV Legal Network, issued a strong statement on World AIDS Day calling for action.
Unlike previous years, the only country on the African continent with reported new HIV criminalisation cases in 2023 was Kenya, where lawmakers are still planning to follow Uganda in enacting even more criminalisation aimed at LGBTI people – as are Botswana, Ghana, and Niger. Following the December 2022 dismissal of the constitutional challenge to Kenya’s HIV-specific provisions in the Sexual Offences Act, there are plans to appeal and to continue to lobby for change.
Strategic litigation led by KELIN was ultimately successful in establishing that women living with HIV possess the inherent right to make informed choices regarding their reproductive decisions following a nine-year process, so sustained advocacy – and patience – may be required. Patience may also be needed in South Africa where long-awaited sex work decriminalisation was further postponed, although parliament did agree to clear COVID lockdown criminal records. Elsewhere, another positive development in the region was the repeal of Mauritius’ colonial-era sodomy law which means that the number of nations with laws against gay sex has now fallen to 66.
EASTERN EUROPE / CENTRAL ASIA
People living with HIV in the EECA region continue to face multiple challenges. In just the first six months of 2023, there were 20 cases of alleged “intentional HIV transmission” to sexual partners in Uzbekistan’s Tashkent region – the highest HIV criminalisation case count anywhere in the world. The majority of those prosecuted appeared to be women. This comes as no surprise given that an analysis of cases and laws across the ECCA region by our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS (EWNA), found that women living with HIV bear the brunt of the “legalised stigma” of HIV criminalisation in the region.
One of the main reasons for the high number of cases in the EECA region is the integration of HIV criminalisation within healthcare policies: newly diagnosed individuals are made to sign a paper acknowledging their legal liability for HIV prevention often without receiving adequate or meaningful counselling or support. In Russia – where the second highest number of cases were reported – a study found that most HIV clinicians support HIV criminalisation, and in Kazakhstan it was revealed that 1-in-1000 people newly diagnosed with HIV in 2022 filed a police report blaming someone else for their infection.
The legal environment for people living with HIV in Russia continues to worsen, as it does for all its citizens, especially LGBTI people – with trans women sex worker migrants facing the brunt of the Russia’s anti-LGBT “propaganda” law. And in Tajikistan, homophobic and HIV-phobic law enforcement practices resulted in ten gay men being arrested Dushanbe on suspicion of “infecting 86 people with HIV.” The only positive news for the region came from Ukraine, where a new protective HIV law was adopted earlier this year, although criminal liability for HIV exposure or transmission remains a possibility.
December saw two contrasting developments in Western Europe. Just as Ireland’s Supreme Court overturned the country’s first-ever sexual HIV criminalisation case – partially based on now well-established limitations of scientific evidence being able to prove who infected whom – a lower court in Latvia convicted someone of alleged HIV transmission for the first time.
And although in the United Kingdom, a long-awaited update to the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidance now unequivocally states that an undetectable viral load stops HIV transmission, five HIV criminalisation cases still took place, along with a highly publicised civil case. Per capita, this meant that in 2023 the UK had a five-fold incidence of reported HIV criminalisation cases compared to the United States!
Singapore continues to lead the Asia Pacific region with four reported HIV criminalisation cases in 2023: one for blood donation, two for biting, and one involving a transgender sex worker for alleged HIV exposure. Although South Korea’s constitutional court ended up declaring most of its HIV criminalisation provisions constitutional, their recognition that U=U suggests the law may evolve to recognise up-to-date science.
Although ending HIV criminalisation cannot rely on science alone, it can help limit unjust prosecutions while we work to end the HIV-related stigma, discrimination and structural inequalities that drive criminalisation.
BRINGING SCIENCE TO JUSTICE
This year, we celebrated five years since the publication of the ‘Expert Consensus Statement on the Science of HIV in the Context of Criminal Law’ with our ‘Five-Year Impact Report’ and an HIV Justice Live! webshow focused on bringing science to justice. Both proved that the Expert Consensus Statement remains relevant, accurate and extremely useful.
Given this delicate balance between moving forward and preventing the erosion of hard-won rights there is still so much more to do to reach the global target of fewer than 10% of countries with punitive laws and policies that negatively impact the HIV response.
LET COMMUNITIES LEAD
To ensure that communities continue to lead, and to further enable the building of an intersectional movement to end punitive laws and policies that impact people living with HIV in all diversity, we made our online platform for e-learning and training, the HIV Justice Academy, more widely available in Spanish and Russian, to complement our English and French versions.
In 2023, the HIV Justice Academy was visited by several thousand learners from 110 countries. We were thrilled to learn that graduates of our flagship HIV Criminalisation Online Course told us that they really benefitted from the course, finding it relevant, interesting, and engaging.
RENEWED FOCUS FOR 2024
We will begin 2024 with a renewed focus to achieving HIV justice as we continue to:
- build the evidence base by gathering relevant data and information from around the world.
- raise awareness across multiple platforms and communities of the harms of HIV criminalisation.
- create, collate, and disseminate advocacy tools and resources to foster more effective responses to damaging laws, policies, and media narratives; and
- bring individuals and national, regional, and global networks and organisations together, as part of the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition, to catalyse change.