2022 in review: A turning point for HIV justice?

Looking back on all that happened in 2022, we are cautiously optimistic that 2022 will be seen as a turning point in the global movement to end HIV criminalisation. We celebrated promising developments in case law, law reform and policy in many countries and jurisdictions over the past year, building on the momentum of 2021. Although there is much more work yet to do, it’s clear that progress is being made — thanks primarily to the leadership of people living with HIV.

Continuing a trend that began two years ago, overall there seems to have been a decline in the number of HIV-related prosecutions. This year we identified media reports of 49 new HIV criminalisation cases in 16 countries plus seven US states. This compares to 54 new cases in 20 countries last year (which was still fewer than reported in previous years). This year, the highest number of case reports came from Russia, followed by the United States (with multiple cases in the state of Florida), and France

It is possible that we are seeing fewer media reports because there are actually fewer cases, but we must always consider these known cases to be illustrative of what is likely a more widespread, poorly documented use of criminal law against people living with HIV. The media, public health authorities and law enforcement may still be distracted by the global financial crisis precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the impact of COVID-19 — a pandemic that continues to disproportionately impact people living with HIV.

After being near the top in previous years, Belarus has been bumped off the ‘most cases’ list. Last year, the Belarus Investigative Committee reported 34 new HIV-related criminal cases. It’s highly likely that this year there were some (unreported) cases, but it’s also clear that the number of cases has been slowing down since 2020, possibly due to ongoing discussions with the government to limit the use of the criminal law.

Canada used to be a global leader in HIV criminalisation, but no new cases were reported this year. In fact, the only case reports from Canada were about the overturning of a conviction by the Ontario Court of Appeal after it accepted there was no realistic possibility of transmission as the accused woman had an undetectable viral load, and another Ontario Court of Appeal acquittal based on the accused man’s elite controller status. These positive rulings follow many years of sustained advocacy, which has also led to the federal government opening a public consultation on reforming the criminal law. The Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization has welcomed this consultation as a first step to concrete action on law reform.

Earlier this year, Taiwan’s Supreme Court also recognised the prevention benefit of treatment by upholding the acquittal of a man with an undetectable viral load who was accused of alleged HIV exposure. But elsewhere in Asia, Singapore continues to unjustly prosecute gay men living with HIV under draconian laws, despite being celebrated for recently repealing their colonial-era law that criminalised sex between men. Singapore is also the world leader in prosecuting gay men for not disclosing a possible HIV risk before donating blood. That’s why we issued our Bad Blood report in September, which concludes that the criminalisation of blood donations by people with HIV is a disproportionate measure — the result of both HIV-related stigma and homophobia, and not supported by science.

In the United States, we continued to see a reduction in the number of states with HIV-specific criminal laws thanks to the ongoing advocacy by networks of people living with HIV supported by human rights and public health organisations. In 2022, Georgia modernised its law and New Jersey became the third US state to fully repeal its HIV-specific criminal law. President Biden again highlighted HIV criminalisation in his World AIDS Day proclamation stating that “outdated laws have no basis in science, and they serve to discourage testing and further marginalize HIV-positive people.” In October, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS unanimously passed an historic resolution on molecular HIV surveillance that will be critical to protecting the human rights and dignity of people living with HIV. But problematic new laws continue to be enacted despite strong opposition from civil society. In November, Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf, signed into law an overly broad, unscientific statute that makes it a felony to pass on a communicable disease, including HIV, when someone “should have known” they had the disease.

There was also mixed news from the African continent. In March, Zimbabwe became the second African country to repeal its HIV-specific law (the Democratic Republic of Congo repealed its law in 2018). This victory is testament to the effectiveness of a multi-year, multi-stakeholder campaign that began with civil society advocates sensitising communities and parliamentarians, notably the Honourable Dr Ruth Labode, Chairperson of Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care. She began pushing for a change in the law in 2018, having previously been in favour of the provision which she thought protected her female constituents. And in October, the Central African Republic also enacted a new HIV law that focused primarily on social protections for people living with HIV, without any criminalising provisions.

Also in October, the Lesotho High Court issued a positive judgment following a constitutional challenge to sections of the Sexual Offences Act that impose a mandatory death sentence on persons convicted of sexual offences if they were living with HIV.  Following interventions from members of the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition and others, the Court ruled that people living with HIV have the same right to life as all others — and commuted the sentence.

The news elsewhere on the continent, however, wasn’t so positive. After six years of waiting, a constitutional challenge to some of the most problematic, criminalising sections of Uganda’s HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Act was dismissed outright in November. We are anxiously awaiting the ruling in a similar challenge in neighbouring Kenya. It was filed five years ago and has since been postponed several times. This year, we also lost Ugandan nurse and HIV criminalisation survivor, Rosemary Namubiru, who was a posthumous recipient of the Elizabeth Taylor Legacy Award at this year’s International AIDS Conference.

Women — who were accused in around 25% of all newly reported cases this year — also face criminal prosecution in relation to breastfeeding or comfort nursing, mostly across the African continent. In addition, women living with HIV continue to be threatened with punitive public health processes and child protection interventions for breastfeeding their children in multiple countries. That’s why this year we created the short film, Mwayi’s Story, to highlight the injustice and facilitate discussion about HIV and breastfeeding. We also worked with our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition partners to publish a paper in the peer-reviewed, open access journal Therapeutic Advances in Infectious Diseases to highlight these problematic and unjust approaches to women with HIV who breastfeed or comfort nurse.

This year, we learned from the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS, working with the Global Network of People Living with HIV, about how women living with HIV are both disproportionately impacted by HIV criminalisation across the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region and also leaders in research, advocacy and activism against it. Their report illustrates how HIV criminalisation and gender inequality are intimately and inextricably linked. Case studies include a woman in Russia who was prosecuted for breastfeeding her baby and several women in Russia who were blackmailed by former partners who threatened to report them for alleged HIV exposure as a way to control, coerce, or abuse them.

The disproportionate impact of HIV criminalisation on women was also the focus of a World AIDS Day statement by the Organization of American States (OAS) calling on Member States to end HIV criminalisation. Earlier in the year, Argentina had enacted a new, comprehensive and non-punitive HIV, STI and TB law

Nevertheless, 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. To keep up the momentum, we continued to produce reports and analysis — including our flagship Advancing HIV Justice 4: Understanding Commonalities, Seizing Opportunities — as well as contributed to peer-reviewed journal articles, such as So many harms, so little benefit in the Lancet HIV and Punishing vulnerability through HIV criminalization in the American Journal of Public Health. We’re also doing our best to ensure we change the media narrative on HIV criminalisation, including by contributing to The Guardian’s World AIDS Day podcast on HIV criminalisation.

Our greatest achievement this year was the creation of the HIV Justice Academy. We are very proud of this online platform for e-learning and training which we believe will be a catalyst in building the wider movement to end punitive laws and policies that impact people living with HIV in all their diversity. Already available in English and French, we’ll be launching in Spanish and Russian early next year.

Did we turn the corner in 2022? Only time will tell, but if there is one thing we know for sure it is that changing hearts and minds with respect to HIV criminalisation is a long road with many ups and downs along the way. We know that important progress was made in 2022 and that we begin 2023 with fresh analysis, new tools and a renewed spirit of solidarity.

Lesotho high court finds imposition of death sentence solely on the basis of HIV status unconstitutional

Court decision upholds that people living with HIV have the same right to life as all others

Joint news release from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS, HIV Legal Network and HIV Justice Network

 

On 25 October 2022, the High Court of Lesotho in the case of MK v Director of Public Prosecutions and Others issued a judgment on a constitutional challenge to certain sections of the Sexual Offences Act that impose mandatory HIV testing on persons accused of sexual offences, and subsequently impose a death sentence on persons convicted of sexual offences solely based on their HIV-positive status.

The case was supported by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), HIV Legal Network – all members of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE (HJWW) Steering Committee coordinated by the HIV Justice Network (HJN) – as well as Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN). Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (LENEPWHA) was admitted as Amicus Curiae. The petitioner and Amicus Curiae were represented by Advocate Molati, Advocate Mokhathali, Advocate Masaeso, Advocate Mohau (K.C) and Advocate Letuka.

The petitioner challenged the constitutionality of section 32(a)(vii) of the Sexual Offences Act which appeared to impose a mandatory death sentence on people convicted of sexual offences who were HIV-positive and were aware of their status. The petitioner also challenged section 30 of the Act, which requires mandatory HIV testing for persons arrested and charged under the Act. The petitioner argued that the imposition of a mandatory death sentence solely on the grounds of HIV status, and mandatory HIV testing upon arrest, breached the constitutional rights to life, equality and non-discrimination, equal protection of the law, privacy, and dignity and that they contribute to stigma against people living with HIV.

In a judgment written by Justice Makara, the High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, declared that section 32(a)(vii) of the Sexual Offences Act was unconstitutional to the extent that it imposes a death sentence solely on the basis of a person’s HIV status, as this was discriminatory and amounted to inhumane treatment. The Court said that people convicted of sexual offences should be sentenced according to the mitigating or aggravating circumstances rather than HIV status alone, and that the law should be interpreted so as not to require a mandatory death sentence for a person living with HIV.

“People living with HIV have the right to life, as all people do. Imposing the death penalty based on a person’s HIV-positive status is the most extreme form of discrimination possible. We welcome the Lesotho High Court’s decision to end this terrible human rights violation.” Edwin J Bernard, HIV Justice Network, global coordinator, HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE.

“While recognizing the serious impact of sexual violence, the judgment is an acknowledgment that the over-broad use of criminal laws and sanctions solely based on HIV status is unjust and not justified by a scientific and human-rights based approach” Maketekete Alfred Thotolo, Executive Director, LENEPWHA.

 

Download the pdf of the news release here

 

US: Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) issues resolution on Molecular HIV Surveillance and Cluster Detection

PACHA Unanimously Approves Resolution to Create Safeguards for People Living with HIV

PACHA UNANIMOUSLY APPROVES RESOLUTION TO CREATE SAFEGUARDS FOR PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV

Directs CDC to Adapt Surveillance Activities to Better Protect Human Rights for Vulnerable Communities

October 18, 2022PWN commends and applauds the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) for their leadership in unanimously passing an historic resolution that is critical to protecting the human rights and dignity of people living with HIV, the Resolution on Molecular HIV Surveillance and Cluster Detection Response.

This resolution responds to concerns raised by public health officials and community advocates, especially networks of people living with HIV and human rights and data privacy experts, and urges the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to change their guidance on cluster detection and response (CDR) activities. Specifically, the resolution clearly and forcefully recommends that the CDC direct jurisdictions funded for such activities adapt their implementation of CDR to account for local conditions, including health data privacy protections and laws criminalizing people living with HIV.

“Basically, PACHA told the CDC that local context matters: if jurisdictions do not have adequate safeguards to protect the human rights and privacy of people living with HIV, the CDC must allow for a moratorium on CDR activities,” said Kelly Flannery, policy director at Positive Women’s Network-USA. “There is still room to create more robust protections for people living with HIV, such as informed consent standards. Going forward, we must ensure that there are no further developments and integration of new public health surveillance technologies impacting people living with HIV absent community input, oversight, and specifically involvement from networks of PLHIV.”

In the resolution, PACHA also urged CDC to work in partnership with networks of people living with HIV to create a stronger system of informed consent around the use of molecular HIV surveillance data. U.S.-based networks of PLHIV have been sounding the alarm about molecular HIV surveillance (MHS) since 2018, when the federal government first required that states and jurisdictions scale up the use of molecular surveillance technologies and activities as a condition of HIV prevention funding. By 2019, MHS was named one of the core pillars of the federal “End the HIV Epidemic” (EHE) Plan.

“As a result of massive mobilization and outcry by networks of people living with HIV and our allies, yesterday, we finally saw a response addressing community concerns,” said Venita Ray, co-executive director of Positive Women’s Network-USA. “Now it’s time for the CDC to take swift action to implement the recommendations from PACHA and networks of PLHIV.”

This resolution is a tremendous step forward for communities that are dually most impacted by HIV and by surveillance and policing – especially Black, Indigenous and People of Color, migrants, queer and transgender people, people who use drugs, those who work in in the sex trade, and those with the least access to quality, affordable healthcare. We are deeply appreciative to PACHA leadership and to the PACHA Stigma and Disparities Subcommittee for their tremendous efforts in response to concerns from networks of people living with HIV.

Now that it has now been unanimously approved by PACHA, what happens next will speak to the character and integrity of the CDC. Failing to implement these recommendations would represent an egregious breach of public trust. We will be closely monitoring the adoption of these important recommendations throughout the federal response.

The full PACHA resolution is available here.

USA: New report from Williams Institute shows HIV-related arrests in Louisiana are disproportionately based on race

Black men account for 91% of HIV-related arrests in Louisiana

A new data interactive looks at the impact of HIV criminal laws on people living with HIV in nine states, including Louisiana

Since 2011, as many as 176 people have had contact with Louisiana’s criminal legal system because of allegations of HIV crimes, according to a new report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. HIV-related crimes are disproportionately enforced based on race and sex. In Louisiana, Black men represent 15% of the state population and 44% of people living with HIV, but 91% of those arrested for an HIV crime.

Using data obtained from the Louisiana Incident-Based Reporting System and from the state’s most populous parishes, researchers found that enforcement of HIV crimes is concentrated in East Baton Rouge Parish, Orleans Parish, and Calcasieu Parish. Furthermore, the number of HIV incidents—or interactions with law enforcement involving allegations of HIV crimes—is not declining over time.

HIV criminalization is a term used to describe laws that either criminalize otherwise legal conduct or increase the penalties for illegal conduct based upon a person’s HIV-positive status. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. states and territories currently have laws that criminalize people living with HIV.

A new data interactive looks at the impact of HIV criminal laws on people living with HIV in nine states, including Louisiana.

Louisiana has one criminal law related to HIV, which makes it a felony for a person who knows of their HIV-positive status to intentionally expose another person to HIV through sexual contact or other means without consent. The maximum sentence for an intentional exposure conviction is 10 years, and people convicted of an HIV crime are required to register on the state’s sex offender registry for at least 15 years.

Louisiana’s HIV criminal law does not require actual transmission, intent to transmit, or even the possibility of transmission to sustain a conviction. Between 2011 and 2022, incarceration for HIV crimes cost Louisiana at least $6.5 million.

“The cost of Louisiana’s HIV criminal law is likely much higher. Even with only partial access to the state’s criminal enforcement data, the trends were dramatic,” said lead author Nathan Cisneros, HIV Criminalization Analyst at the Williams Institute. “Louisiana’s HIV criminal law may undermine the state’s public health efforts by deterring the communities most impacted by HIV, including people of color and sex workers, from seeking testing and treatment.”

KEY FINDINGS

  • Most HIV criminal incidents (80%) in Louisiana involved only allegations of an HIV-related crime; no other crimes were alleged in the incidents.
  • Black people—and especially Black men—were the majority of people identified as suspects and arrested for HIV-related crimes in Louisiana.
    • Across the state, 63% of suspects were Black and 45% were Black men. For incidents that resulted in arrest, all of those arrested were Black and 91% were Black men.
    • In New Orleans, close to 80% of all suspects were identified as Black and 58% were Black men.
  • Black people and women were overrepresented among victims of HIV-related incidents.
    • Across the state, Black women and white women each represented 28% of all victims.
    • In New Orleans, Black men were 58% of all victims.
  • Since 1998, there have been at least 47 separate HIV-related convictions resulting in sex offender registration, involving 43 people.
  • Most people (63%) on the sex offender registry because of an HIV-related conviction are on the registry only because of the HIV-related conviction.
  • Three-quarters of people on the sex offender registry for an HIV-related conviction were Black.
  • Guilty outcomes resulted in an average sentence of 4.3 years.
  • Incarcerating people for HIV-related charges has cost Louisiana at least $6.5 million.

This report is part of a series of reports examining the ongoing impact of state HIV criminalization laws on people living with HIV. Take a look at our new data interactive summarizing the findings of our research.

Read the report

When law and science part ways: the criminalization of breastfeeding by women living with HIV

The HIV Justice Network (HJN) has been monitoring a disturbing phenomenon — at least 12 women living with HIV have faced criminal prosecution in relation to breastfeeding or comfort nursing.  

In addition, women living with HIV have been threatened with punitive public health processes and child protection interventions for breastfeeding their children in multiple countries.

To bring this important issue to the attention of women’s health experts and advocates, HJN worked with our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners to write a paper for a Special Collection on Women’s Health and HIV for the peer-reviewed, open access journal Therapeutic Advances in Infectious Diseases.     

In “When law and science part ways: the criminalization of breastfeeding by women living with HIV,” published last week, Alison Symington (HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst), Nyasha Chingore-Munazvo (Programmes Lead, AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa) and Svitlana Moroz (Chair of the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS) place the criminalisation of women with HIV for breastfeeding within the context of current medical recommendations and cultural views of breastfeeding. They review the criminal cases against women living with HIV for breastfeeding around the globe, examine the injustice of these prosecutions, and provide recommendations for decriminalisation.

This Special Collection includes papers addressing a wide range of health issues impacting women with HIV. According to lead author Alison Symington, “We felt it was important to submit a paper on breastfeeding and HIV criminalisation because so few people are aware of these horrible cases. Healthcare providers have an important role to play in protecting women from punitive actions and providing them with information and support so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and their children.”

To make the paper even more widely accessible, HJN has provided translations into French, Russian and Spanish.

It is HJN’s aim to collaborate with advocates, researchers, service providers, organisations and community members around the world to raise awareness and prevent further unjust prosecutions against women living with HIV who breastfeed or comfort nurse. We are therefore grateful to both the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the Robert Carr Fund for their financial support for this work.

Further resources

Mwayi’s Story is a short film about courage, and about women standing up for their rights. The film is based on a real case in Malawi and the subsequent successful advocacy to prevent an HIV criminalisation statute being passed. The full story of the woman who was prosecuted for briefly breastfeeding another woman’s baby is told in an HJN feature, It Takes More Than A Village to End HIV Criminalisation, by Sally Cameron, based on a report by Peter Gwazayani, Edna Tembo and Charity Mkona.

 

 

Why people living with HIV should not be criminalised for donating blood

Preventing the transmission of blood-borne infection by imposing limitations on the donation of blood is an important and legitimate public health objective.

Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, certain groups – including, but not limited to, gay men and other men who have sex with men – have been subjected to restrictions on their ability to give blood.

Sustained advocacy by gay rights organisations in many high-income countries has focused on the discriminatory nature of these so-called ‘gay blood bans’, highlighting significant advances in blood screening capabilities. This has led to a general softening of restrictions on blood donations for gay men in many of these countries – allowing donations with ‘deferral periods’, or allowing donations based on individual risk assessments.

However, this advocacy has generally not translated into the removal of HIV-specific criminal laws for donating blood, nor has there been a call for a moratorium on singling out people living with HIV for donating blood using non-HIV-specific general criminal laws – even though many of the same public health and human rights arguments apply to both the so-called ‘gay blood bans’ and to HIV criminalisation more generally.

That is why today, the HIV Justice Network has published Bad Blood: Criminalisation of Blood Donations by People Living with HIV. The report was written by Elliot Hatt and edited by Edwin J Bernard, based on research undertaken by Sylvie Beaumont, with additional input provided by Sarai Chisala-Tempelhoff and Paul Kidd (HIV Justice Network’s Supervisory Board); Sean Strub (Sero Project) and Robert James (University of Sussex).

We found that 37 jurisdictions in 22 countries maintain laws that criminalise people with HIV for donating blood. Notably, 15 jurisdictions in the United States (US) have laws which specifically criminalise blood donations by people living with HIV, while four US states – California, Illinois, Iowa, and Virginia – have repealed laws which previously criminalised this conduct.

Although prosecutions are relatively rare, we are aware of at least 20 cases relating to blood donation since 1987. Half of these cases have been reported in Singapore, including two as recently as 2021.

We argue that the criminalisation of blood donations by people with HIV is a disproportionate measure – even if the aim of protecting public health through the prevention of transfusion-transmitted infection is legitimate – and is the result of both HIV-related stigma and homophobia. It is not supported by science.

There is no good reason for any country or jurisdiction to have HIV-specific criminal laws – whether they focus on blood donation or on sexual exposure or transmission. HIV-specific criminal laws are discriminatory and stigmatising, especially since people with other serious blood borne infections – including hepatitis B and C and syphilis – are not singled out with specific laws, nor for prosecution under general criminal laws.

Blood donation criminal laws focused on HIV should be repealed, prosecutions based on general laws should end, and instead science-informed measures – such as individual donor risk assessments and universal blood screening – should be relied on to protect the public against transfusion-transmitted infection.

Read the report at: https://www.hivjustice.net/publication/badblood

HIV criminalisation highlights at AIDS 2022

The 24th international AIDS conference (AIDS 2022) held in Montreal and virtually between 29 July and 2 August integrated HIV criminalisation throughout multiple sessions – both in the main conference and during pre-conferences, satellites and in the Global Village.

Australian activist, lawyer, Track F rapporteur – and HJN Supervisory Board member – Paul Kidd has provided a thorough overview of many of these sessions in this Twitter thread, which can also be read as a single blog entry here.

Two major campaigns were launched at the conference – one global, and one focused on Canada.

GNP+ and HJN joined with networks representing young people, women, the LGBTI+ community, sex workers and people who use drugs to launch the “Not A Criminal” Campaign to decriminalise HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission; same-sex relationships; sex work and drug use. 

As part of the “Not A Criminal” Campaign, we are demanding countries remove bad laws and replace them with evidence-based legislation to protect our communities from criminalisation, discrimination and gender-based violence, and support the creation of independent human rights institutions. Additionally, the campaign calls on United Nations agencies and donors to develop strong, coordinated, and high-profile mechanisms to monitor progress on these member states’ commitments.

“Far from being a legitimate public health tool, criminalisation of our behaviours, choices and identities is about the enforcement of an oppressive morality through policing our bodily autonomy,” HIV Justice Network’s Executive Director Edwin J Bernard said in a press release announcing the campaign. “This punishment of our vulnerability also means we won’t be able to end the HIV epidemic by 2030.” 

The Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization (CCRHC) made the most of the spotlight on Canada during the conference and launched its second Community Consensus Statement.  This Statement calls on the Canadian government to change the Criminal Code to limit HIV criminalisation only to very rare cases of intentional transmission using appropriate existing criminal statutes. Canada’s Justice Minister, David Lametti has since announced plans to launch a consultation this October on the criminal legal system’s overly draconian response to HIV non-disclosure.

However, the biggest – and most welcome – surprise of the conference was the recipient of the Elizabeth Taylor Legacy Award which was presented during Saturday’s prime session on HIV and Human Rights. Previous recipients have included Nancy Pelosi, Sharon Stone, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Jackson and Elton John.

This year’s Elizabeth Taylor Legacy Award was presented posthumously to the late Rosemary Namubiru – recognising her extraordinary contribution to raising awareness of the injustice of HIV criminalisation.

Lillian Mworeko of the International Community of Women Living with HIV – East Africa (ICW-EA) received the award on behalf of Rosemary’s family. Rosemary’s daughter had planned to be there, but – like many Africans – was denied a visa.