When considering the criminalisation of COVID-19, lessons from HIV should be retained

Marginalised communities will not get justice from criminalising Covid-19 transmission

The criminalisation of the virus would create greater barriers to accessing healthcare systems already preventing many people from getting treatment.

After it was announced that no further action would be taken by police regarding the death of Belly Mujinga, a railway worker who contracted coronavirus after reportedly being spat on, there was national outcry. Her name has been plastered on placards at Black Lives Matter protests, while the public has pointed out that a man in Scotland who spat on a police officer while “joking” about coronavirus in April has been jailed for a year. But while this outrage is valid in the face of a government who continues to show their blatant disregard for black lives, criminalisation of diseases has been proven to be an ineffective tool for justice.

Over the past few months, parallels have been drawn between the Covid-19 pandemic and the HIV epidemic. Both viruses are communicable (they can be passed between people); both have been racialised, leading to racist and xenophobic attacks and stereotyping; community mobilisation has demanded adequate government public health responses for both health emergencies; and the impact of both viruses has highlighted the need for a global health approach which transcends borders. 

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic, many HIV organisations and activists advocated that the transmission of the novel coronavirus should not be criminalised. As public fear of Covid-19 grew, HIV advocates predicted the negative impact on public health and possibility of human rights violations, similar to those seen for people living with HIV. 

“Despite the evolving scientific knowledge, criminalisation laws have been written and implemented across the world faster than the development of the general understanding of the virus itself”

This strain of coronavirus is new and scientists are developing their understanding of it. In the past few weeks, there has been confusion about the probability of asymptomatic transmission (transmitting the virus when a person does not have Covid-19-like symptoms), as the WHO had previously commented that it was “very rare” and later stated that this wording had misled people. Despite the evolving scientific knowledge, criminalisation laws have been written and implemented across the world faster than the development of the general understanding of the virus itself. Globally, countries have implemented or have proposed laws against Covid-19 transmission and even exposure, without transmission, including Canada, France, India, and South Africa.

Often, the aim of criminalisation is to facilitate a tool for prevention and deterrence (to discourage people from passing on a virus) or as punishment for those who have or may have passed on a virus. HIV advocacy has illustrated over the years that the criminalisation of transmission or exposure is ineffective, and disproportionately impacts marginalised communities and negatively impacts public health.

In their Statement on Covid-19 Criminalisation, published in March, the HIV Justice Worldwide Steering Committee wrote that hastily drafted laws, as well as law enforcement, driven by fear and panic, are unlikely to be guided by the best available scientific and medical evidence – especially where such science is unclear, complex and evolving. “Given the context of a virus that can easily be transmitted by casual contact and where proof of actual exposure or transmission is not possible, we believe that the criminal justice system is unlikely to uphold principles of legal and judicial fairness, including the key criminal law principles of legality, foreseeability, intent, causality, proportionality and proof.”  

Since that statement was issued, internationally coronavirus laws have been weaponised against the most marginalised within society, as is the case with HIV criminalisation laws. The Ugandan government, for example, has used coronavirus laws to target marginalised LGBTQI+ groups, and in the UK, people of colour are fined more than the white population under coronavirus laws, in some cases leading to unlawful charges. In some cases people were even charged under the wrong law (e.g. enforcing Welsh law in England).

The director of legal services at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the public agency that conducts criminal prosecutions in England and Wales, found that 24% of cases reviewed had been charged incorrectly. In May a CPS press statement cited the speed and pressure to implement the laws as the cause of the wrongful charges. Across the Global North, it has been well documented that racialised communities are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation anticipates that LGBTQI communities will be disproportionately impacted by the virus. This is due to a myriad of reasons underpinned by systemic discrimination.

“Criminalisation of transmission or exposure is ineffective, and disproportionately impacts marginalised communities and negatively impacts public health”

HIV research has shown little evidence that criminalisation laws prevent transmission, in fact, it’s evidenced that such laws are bad for public health and fuel reluctance to get tested and treated. In the UK, testing and treatment of Covid-19 is free, as is the case with many other communicable diseases to remove the barrier to testing and treatment. Free testing and treatment access, irrespective of immigration status, is important, however, a briefing paper from Medact, Migrants Organise and New Economics Foundation (NEF), has shown that migrant communities blocked from healthcare because of the hostile environment, that “the coronavirus ‘exemption’ from charging and immigration checks is not working” and people have been asked to show their passports, and that people face additional obstacles such as language barrier and digital exclusion from emergency services. 

Criminalisation exacerbates public health issues: in a Channel 4 report, Migrants Organise spoke of a man who died at home for fear of being reported to immigration authorities if he accessed healthcare. The threat of immigration enforcement disproportionately impacts those in precarious work and those with precarious migration status, all of whom are more likely to come from racialised groups and in some cases groups which are hyper-surveilled and criminalised.

The role of healthcare and access to it needs to be reimagined, where people are viewed as patients not passports and healthcare professionals are not the extended arm of the Home Office. Governments must implement better employment rights, so that employers are held to account and do not put staff such as Belly Mujinga, in harmful positions. Governments must provide better statutory sick pay so those in precarious work do not have to choose between their health and putting food on the table. We need to overhaul systemically discriminatory processes that don’t look after the most vulnerable, rather than implementing laws – such as criminalisation – that will systematically punish them.

New Francophone Africa HIV criminalisation advocacy factsheet published today

Today, HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE releases a new advocacy factsheet developed by and for Francophone activists engaged in the fight against HIV criminalisation in Francophone Africa.

Co-authored by Cécile Kazatchkine of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Alain Kra, an expert in HIV and human rights Expert from Côte d’Ivoire, on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, the factsheet is the first of several that will be published throughout the year focusing on a particular language and region.

“We are delighted to share this new resource with you today,” Cécile Kazatchkine writes below. “In it, you will find everything you need to know about HIV criminalisation in francophone Africa, the issues it raises and the strategies adopted by activists to address it. Many thanks to Alain Kra, an expert in human rights and HIV from Côte d’Ivoire, who co-authored this factsheet, and to our colleagues from the Francophone HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE network for their contributions and for sharing their experiences.”

Nous sommes heureux de partager aujourd’hui cette nouvelle ressource développée par et pour les militants francophones engagés dans la lutte contre la pénalisation du VIH. Vous y trouverez tout ce que vous devez savoir sur la pénalisation en Afrique francophone, les enjeux qu’elle soulève et les stratégies adoptées par les militants pour y répondre. Un grand merci à Alain Kra, Expert en droits humains et VIH de Côte d’Ivoire et co-auteur de ce feuillet d’information ainsi qu’à nos collègues du réseau francophone HIV Justice Worldwide pour leurs contributions et le partage de leurs expériences.

Cécile Kazatchkine, le Réseau juridique canadien VIH/sida

 

To provide a taste of the content to English-speakers, here are some of the introductory paragaphs from the 16-page PDF.

African HIV legislation was drafted on the basis of the N’Djamena model law developed during a three-day workshop in 2004 organised by Action for West Africa Region-HIV/ AIDS (AWARE-HIV/AIDS) and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  This model, presented as a tool for the rapid dissemination of “good practices”, has led to a veritable “legislative contagion” in terms of HIV criminalisation across the continent, particularly in francophone Africa.

“Nineteen countries in francophone Africa currently have HIV-specific laws. Sixteen of these laws, which are supposed to guarantee the rights of people living with HIV, also criminalise HIV transmission or exposure. Criticism of the model law and a better understanding of the risks associated with HIV criminalisation have led to the revision of some laws in Togo, Guinea and Niger to limit the scope of HIV criminalisation.

“Similarly, criminal provisions in HIV laws adopted in 2010 in Senegal, 2011 in the Congo and 2014 in Côte d’Ivoire are more protective of the rights of people living with HIV. Like the revised laws, they include provisions expressly excluding criminalisation in certain circumstances, such as where condoms have been used or in cases of mother-to-child transmission. Congolese law precludes criminal liability in the greatest number of circumstances. In Cameroon and Gabon, HIV bills with provisions criminalising HIV were eventually abandoned, while in Comoros and Mauritius, HIV laws have never included criminalising provisions. Finally, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the section of the HIV law criminalising the ‘deliberate’ transmission of HIV was repealed in 2018.”

The information sheet goes on to cover the disproportionate impact of HIV criminalisation on women across Africa; shows the many reasons why HIV criminalisation does more harm than good to the HIV response; explores the impact of science on laws and prosecutions; and includes links to further resources including those contained in the French-language version of the HIV Justice Toolkit.

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE COVID-19 criminalisation statement now available in Arabic

Today, the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee statement on lessons learned from HIV criminalisation as it relates to COVID-19 criminalisation, has been published in a fifth language, Arabic.

Download the statement in Arabic / تحميل البيان باللغة العربية

We are grateful to our Global Advisory Panel member, Elie Balan, head of the LGBT Health Department (M-Coalition) at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, for undertaking the translation. 

The statement was originally published on 25 March in English, French and Spanish, and on 26 March in Russian.

The HIV Justice Network (HJN) continues to monitor the many ways legal, policy and police responses to COVID-19 is negatively impacting the human rights of people living with HIV, as well as individuals and communities most impacted by HIV. 

Each week, Sylvie Beaumont, HJN’s Research / Outreach Co-ordinator, curates our HIV Justice Weekly newsletter. She ensures that all of the previous week’s key articles and podcasts critiquing punitive responses to HIV and/or COVID-19, as well as HIV and COVID-19 criminalisation cases can be found in one place.

If you haven’t already signed up to receive the newsletter, published each Friday, you can do so at: https://www.hivjustice.net/hiv-justice-weekly

 

UNAIDS “extremely concerned” by new COVID-19 laws that target people living with or vulnerable to HIV

This week, echoing the concerns of the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee, amongst others, UNAIDS issued a strongly worded press release condemning governments for abusing the current state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic for overreaching their powers and enacting laws that target people who are living with, or vulnerable, to HIV.

“In times of crisis, emergency powers and agility are crucial; however, they cannot come at the cost of the rights of the most vulnerable,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “Checks and balances that are the cornerstone of the rule of law must be exercised in order to prevent misuse of such powers. If not, we may see a reversal of much of the progress made in human rights, the right to health and the AIDS response.”

Notably, UNAIDS singles out EU member states, Hungary and Poland.

In Hungary, a new bill has been introduced to remove the right of people to change their gender and name on official documents in order to ensure conformity with their gender identity, in clear breach of international human rights to legal recognition of gender identity.

In Poland, a fast-tracked amendment to the criminal law that increases the penalties for HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission to at least six months in prison and up to eight years in prison has been passed—a clear contravention of international human rights obligations to remove HIV-specific criminal laws.

In addition, UNAIDS condemns overly zealous policing that is especially targeting key populations already stigmatised, marginalised, and criminalised.

UNAIDS is also concerned by reports from a number of countries of police brutality in enforcing measures, using physical violence and harassment and targeting marginalized groups, including sex workers, people who use drugs and people who are homeless. The use of criminal law and violence to enforce movement restrictions is disproportionate and not evidence-informed. Such tactics have been known to be implemented in a discriminatory manner and have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable: people who for whatever reason cannot stay at home, do not have a home or need to work for reasons of survival.

They single out Uganda where “23 people connected with a shelter for providing services for the LGBTI community have been arrested—19 have been charged with a negligent act likely to spread infection or disease. Those 19 are being held in prison without access to a court, legal representation or medication.”

They also highlight Kenya as a model of cjvil society rapid response to human rights concerns following the release of an advisory note “calling for a focus on community engagement and what works for prevention and treatment rather than disproportionate and coercive approaches.”

The statement concludes:

While some rights may be limited during an emergency in order to protect public health and safety, such restrictions must be for a legitimate aim—in this case, to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. They must be proportionate to that aim, necessary, non-arbitrary, evidence-informed and lawful. Each order/law or action by law enforcement must also be reviewable by a court of law. Law enforcement powers must likewise be narrowly defined, proportionate and necessary.

UNAIDS urges all countries to ensure that any emergency laws and powers are limited to a reasonable period of time and renewable only through appropriate parliamentary and participatory processes. Strict limits on the use of police powers must be provided, along with independent oversight of police action and remedies through an accountability mechanism. Restrictions on rights relating to non-discrimination on the basis of HIV status, sexual and reproductive health, freedom of speech and gender identity detailed above do not assist with the COVID-19 response and are therefore not for a legitimate purpose. UNAIDS calls on countries to repeal any laws put in place that cannot be said to be for the legitimate aim of responding to or controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNAIDS recently produced a new guidance document that draws on key lessons from the response to the HIV epidemic: Rights in the time of COVID-19: lessons from HIV for an effective, community-led response.   

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee
Statement on COVID-19 Criminalisation

Communicable diseases are public health issues, not criminal issues: what we have learnt from the HIV response

Measures that are respectful of human rights and the empowering of communities are more effective than punishment and imprisonment.

As the world struggles with a new global pandemic, law- and policymakers are taking drastic measures in an attempt to minimise the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The situation continues to evolve rapidly and, as it does so, our liberties are being limited in unprecedented ways.

We remind law- and policymakers that each and every limitation of rights should satisfy the five criteria of the Siracusa Principles, as well as be of a limited duration and subject to review and appeal. These principles are:

  • The restriction is provided for and carried out in accordance with the law;
  • The restriction is in the interest of a legitimate objective of general interest;
  • The restriction is strictly necessary in a democratic society to achieve the objective;
  • There are no less intrusive and restrictive means available to reach the same objective;
  • The restriction is based on scientific evidence and not drafted or imposed arbitrarily, that is in an unreasonable or otherwise discriminatory manner.

We also warn law- and policymakers against the temptation to use the criminal law or other unjustified and disproportionate repressive measures in relation to COVID-19. These measures can be expected to have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable in society, including those who are homeless and/or living in poverty, as well as individuals from marginalised and already stigmatised or criminalised communities – especially where no economic and social support is provided to allow people to protect themselves and others, including through self-isolation.

As a global coalition campaigning to abolish criminal and similar laws, policies and practices that regulate, control and punish people living with HIV based on their HIV-positive status, we know the deleterious consequences of the criminalisation of diseases on both human rights and public health.

Criminalisation disproportionately impacts the most marginalised, stigmatised and the already criminalised people and communities in society.

 

Criminalisation is not an evidence-based response to public health issues. In fact, the use of the criminal law most often undermines public health by creating barriers to prevention, testing, care, and treatment – for example, people may not disclose their status or access treatment for fear of being criminalised.  It can also lead to ill-informed ‘trial’ by social and news media, and to a myriad of human rights violations, from arbitrary arrests and detentions to unfair trials (or no trials at all under new emergency measures) and harsh prison sentences. This can also lead to the spread of infections and communicable diseases in prisons and is of particular relevance in the context of COVID-19, which reveals, once again, the need to address overcrowding and other poor healthcare and sanitation conditions that are all too common in prisons and other closed settings.

Our experience has taught us that hastily drafted laws, as well as law enforcement, driven by fear and panic, are unlikely to be guided by the best available scientific and medical evidence – especially where such science is unclear, complex and evolving. Given the context of a virus that can easily be transmitted by casual contact and where proof of actual exposure or transmission is not possible, we believe that the criminal justice system is unlikely to uphold principles of legal and judicial fairness, including the key criminal law principles of legality, foreseeability, intent, causality, proportionality and proof.

The human rights of those involved in criminal cases related to COVID-19 are at risk of being ignored or violated.

 

We therefore urge law- and policymakers, the media, and communities at large, to keep human rights front and centre as we collectively respond to a new public health crisis in a climate of fear and uncertainty. It is more critical than ever to commit to, and respect, human rights principles; ground public health measures in scientific evidence; and establish partnerships, trust, and co-operation between law- and policymakers and communities.

The HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee, comprising: AIDS Action Europe; AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA); Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network; Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+); HIV Justice Network;  International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW); Positive Women’s Network – USA; Sero Project; and Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

 

Additional references

Last week, a group of human rights experts at the United Nations warned governments against the abuse of emergency measures to suppress human rights:

“While we recognize the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind States that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” the experts said. “Restrictions should be narrowly tailored and should be the least intrusive means to protect public health.” Also, authorities must seek to return life to normal and must avoid excessive use of emergency powers to indefinitely regulate day-to-day life.”

UNAIDS also issued guidance last week that included a number of recommendations, including recommending that States “avoid the use of criminal laws when encouraging behaviours to slow the spread of the epidemic”, noting that empowering and enabling people and communities to protect themselves and others will have a greater overall effect.

And, as described in a recent open letter by more than 800 public health and legal experts in the United States providing recommendations to government officials: “Voluntary self-isolation measures [combined with education, widespread screening, and universal access to treatment] are more likely to induce cooperation and protect public trust than coercive measures and are more likely to prevent attempts to avoid contact with the healthcare system.”

Human rights are key to ending the epidemics

OPINION: End epidemics by breaking down human rights barriers to health

Access to healthcare is a right, not a luxury. We have an historic opportunity to rid the world of HIV, TB and malaria. Let’s seize that opportunity.

Peter Sands is the executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Antonio Zappulla is the chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Among the many challenges involved in improving health services, one is both pervasive and largely hidden. Human rights-related barriers to health, some explicit, others expressed in behaviours and norms, prevent millions of people from access to lifesaving prevention and treatment.

Think of a girl who is forced to get married at 15 and needs her husband’s permission to undergo an HIV test, or to get a bed net to protect herself and her children from malaria. Or a gay man who is beaten up by police and charged with sodomy when he secretly visits the home of a community health care worker to obtain condoms. Or a group of miners working 14 hours a day deep in a mine without ventilation and health insurance despite widespread tuberculosis.

Money alone cannot ensure and protect basic human rights for people most at risk from infectious diseases.

If the media stokes the appetite for a witch hunt against LGBT+ people or condones violence against women, how will society behave? If laws allow abuse and discrimination to be justified, how can social justice be achieved?

Stigma, ignorance, prejudice and lack of opportunities are some of the toughest road blocks to remove. But the combined power of the law and the media can make a difference.

Fair and balanced news coverage is critical in informing public opinion. Respect for human rights is essential to ensure access to health services. Combined, they become the key to unlocking systemic change.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls are twice as likely to be HIV-positive compared to young men. Contributing factors include gender inequality, violence and limited access to education. Meanwhile, men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers and transgender people often lack access to health programmes. The root cause? Social taboos, punitive laws and fear of arrest.

Framing health as a human right creates an obligation on states to ensure accessible, acceptable and affordable health care of appropriate quality. But this conception of health as a human right is not shared around the world. You have only to look, for example, at how HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission is still criminalized in 86 jurisdictions worldwide.

We will never end the epidemics of HIV, TB and malaria –  which killed 3 million people in 2017 alone – unless we dismantle social and human rights barriers to health services.

Everyone has a right to healthcare, encompassing dignity and respect. Not only is this a basic human right, but it is critical to fostering social stability and boosting economic growth. It is predicted that drug-resistant TB will cost the global economy approximately US$17 trillion by 2050 if progress is not made fast enough.

The Global Fund and the Thomson Reuters Foundation are joining forces to combine the power of an international health financing organization with global media and legal expertise, to help break down barriers to health services.

Each year, the Global Fund mobilizes and invests more than US$4 billion to support health programs run by local experts in more than 100 countries. Through its “Breaking Down Barriers” Initiative, the Global Fund is working with countries to reduce human rights-related barriers to health services: to ensure that everybody, including the most marginalized, also have access to prevention, treatment and care services; to see that health care workers are trained not to discriminate against, turn away, or fear people living with HIV or TB; to ensure that police are sensitized to support LGBT people to access prevention and treatment, rather than subject them to extortion, arbitrary arrest and violence; and to inform women, girls and others most affected by disease and violence about their rights and access to legal support. In the last three years, over US$120 million have gone to these and other programs to reduce stigma and discrimination and increase access to justice, an unprecedented investment in human rights as a critical component of our efforts to end HIV, TB, and malaria.

But more needs to be done. In its new partnership with the Global Fund, the Thomson Reuters Foundation will facilitate legal services and support for civil society partners in key countries, including development of “know your rights” training, capacity-building for health practitioners, services providers and their clients, plus guidance for NGOs and civil society groups working in challenging social contexts. The Thomson Reuters Foundation will also train journalists on human rights and health issues, and support awareness-raising on human rights-related barriers to health. Our hope is that by combining forces, we can achieve real impact.

Access to healthcare is a right, not a luxury. We have an historic opportunity to rid the world of HIV, TB and malaria. Let’s seize that opportunity.

On Human Rights Day, please endorse the EECA Statement against HIV Criminalization

Today, December 10, 2019, Human Rights Day, National and Regional Networks and Civil Society Organizations on HIV Criminalization in the EECA Region are asking you to support the movement against HIV criminalization by endorsing the following Statement.

Download a pdf of the Statement in English or Russian.

Endorse the Statement in English here.  EПодпишите заявление на русском языке здесь.

On November 25-26, 2019, the “Decriminalization of HIV transmission in the EECA region: the role of civil society and advocacy tools” meeting was held in Minsk, Belarus, by the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS (EWNA), the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) and CO “100 PERCENT LIFE”. Activists representing national, regional and international networks discussed the current situation with HIV criminalization in the EECA region and options available to strengthen the movement in order to counter that HIV criminalization in the EECA region.

HIV criminalization is a global issue that undermines human rights and impedes the development of public health and, as a result, weakens the efforts to eradicate the HIV epidemic. An analysis of recent HIV criminalization cases shows that they do not reflect the demographics of local epidemics, and the likelihood of persecution is compounded by discrimination against marginalized groups on the basic of drug use, ethnicity, gender identity, immigration status, sex work and sexuality.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Joint United Nations Program on AIDS (UNAIDS), among others, declare that any use of criminal law against people living with HIV should be strictly limited to exceptional cases of intentional and malicious HIV transmission to another person and only where real harm occurred. However, the law and law enforcement practice go beyond this limitation in many countries.

According to HIV Justice Worldwide, Europe and Central Asia is the region with the second highest number of laws criminalizing HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission. 18 of the 19 countries where such laws have been adopted are in the EECA region. Many of them allow criminal prosecution for actions that do not pose a risk of HIV or pose a low risk only. These laws do not recognize condom use or low viral load as a means of protection against prosecution. They criminalize oral sex, individual breastfeeding cases, as well as bites, scratches, bites, or spitting. Such laws were developed in the times when efficient ARV therapy was not yet available and the HIV diagnosis was equated with a death sentence. The implementation of such laws is most often informed by myths, misconceptions on HIV transmission ways, and stigma against people living with HIV and vulnerable communities.

The laws of the EECA countries criminalizing the HIV transmission vary in their severity and in specific sanctions. The Russian Federation and Belarus are global and regional leaders in terms of the number of criminal cases related to HIV6. In Uzbekistan, a person living with HIV can be prosecuted regardless of whether his/her partner wants to initiate a criminal case. In 2019, a punishment was introduced in the law in Tajikistan for those who refuse to receive HIV therapy7. In many EECA countries, the punishment for any crime involving an HIV-positive person is exacerbated by the positive HIV status.

Concerned by the fact that prosecutions are not always informed by the best available scientific and medical evidence, 20 of the world’s leading HIV scientists have presented the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law.

The criminalization of HIV transmission is a growing human rights issue in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This fact is also confirmed by the first regional report, prepared in 2017 using the data of the communities of women living with HIV. The study was organized and conducted by EWNA with the support of GNP+ and HIV Justice Worldwide.

The study has shown that HIV criminalization is a gender issue10. The stories and cases documented in the report and other recently conducted studies illustrate that women are more likely to be persecuted, as they are often the first to become aware of their status through regular HIV testing during pregnancy, but they are less likely to safely disclose their HIV positive status to their partner due to gender inequality in the family, economic dependence and high levels of violence. In addition, women living with HIV are less likely to receive adequate legal assistance and to have competent representation in court. In their stories, women talk about violence, threats, and blackmail associated with their HIV-positive status. The laws adopted were designed to protect women from HIV. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the reality as HIV criminalization makes women more vulnerable to violence and structural disparities. HIV criminalization increases the vulnerability of women to deprivation of parental rights, property loss, and poverty.

EECA activists make essential efforts to advocate for the decriminalization of HIV infection. Thus, the active advocacy work conducted by the community of people living with HIV pushed Belarus to adopt an important legislative amendment: the HIV-positive partner should be exempt from criminal liability if he or she has timely warned the HIV-negative partner about HIV and the latter has voluntarily agreed to take actions, which created a risk of infection. However this step alone is not sufficient to solve the issue of HIV criminalization.

We call attention of the EECA countries to the fact that in a society with low stigma and discrimination, people are more likely to be voluntarily tested for HIV and, learning about their status, begin ARV treatment.

We urge communities of people living with HIV and other criminalized and marginalized communities, in particular sex workers, LGBT people, people who use drugs, to unite and take a consolidated position to counter HIV criminalization, presenting a united front against HIV stigma and discrimination embedded in the law.

We urge governments and parliamentarians to use general law to prevent HIV transmission in the harm to health context and, instead of applying criminal law in any cases other than actual infection transmission by malicious intent, take steps to encourage people to be tested, take ARV treatment, communicate their HIV status and have safe sex without fear of stigma, discrimination and violence. This can be achieved by adopting and applying anti-discrimination laws and organizing public information campaigns to dispel myths about HIV, as such campaigns are evidence-based and are led by people living with HIV.

We urge prosecution agencies and prosecutors, to use scientific evidence and evidence-based medicine, in particular the evidence included in the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law, in pre-trial and trial proceedings, in order to limit or prevent abuse of criminal prosecution in cases of allegations of HIV transmission or exposure or in cases of non-disclosure of HIV status.

We urge the media to stop demonizing people living with HIV, presenting us as criminals and as sources of infection. We request the media to consider HIV related issues from the perspective of human rights and use facts and evidence-based medicine while covering such issues.

We encourage donors to invest in communities and advocates opposing HIV criminalization, which undermines human rights and public health.

UNAIDS and UNDP urge countries to lift all forms of HIV-related travel restrictions

UNAIDS and UNDP call on 48* countries and territories to remove all HIV-related travel restrictions

New data show that in 2019 around 48* countries and territories still have restrictions that include mandatory HIV testing and disclosure as part of requirements for entry, residence, work and/or study permits

GENEVA, 27 June 2019—UNAIDS and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are urging countries to keep the promises made in the 2016 United Nations Political Declaration on Ending AIDS to remove all forms of HIV-related travel restrictions. Travel restrictions based on real or perceived HIV status are discriminatory, prevent people from accessing HIV services and propagate stigma and discrimination. Since 2015, four countries have taken steps to lift their HIV-related travel restrictions—Belarus, Lithuania, the Republic of Korea and Uzbekistan.

“Travel restrictions on the basis of HIV status violate human rights and are not effective in achieving the public health goal of preventing HIV transmission,” said Gunilla Carlsson, UNAIDS Executive Director, a.i. “UNAIDS calls on all countries that still have HIV-related travel restrictions to remove them.”

“HIV-related travel restrictions fuel exclusion and intolerance by fostering the dangerous and false idea that people on the move spread disease,” said Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of UNDP’s HIV, Health and Development Group. “The 2018 Supplement of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law was unequivocal in its findings that these policies are counterproductive to effective AIDS responses.”

Out of the 48 countries and territories that maintain restrictions, at least 30 still impose bans on entry or stay and residence based on HIV status and 19 deport non-nationals on the grounds of their HIV status. Other countries and territories may require an HIV test or diagnosis as a requirement for a study, work or entry visa. The majority of countries that retain travel restrictions are in the Middle East and North Africa, but many countries in Asia and the Pacific and eastern Europe and central Asia also impose restrictions.

“HIV-related travel restrictions violate human rights and stimulate stigma and discrimination. They do not decrease the transmission of HIV and are based on moralistic notions of people living with HIV and key populations. It is truly incomprehensible that HIV-related entry and residency restrictions still exist,” said Rico Gustav, Executive Director of the Global Network of People Living with HIV.

The Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, this week for its 41st session, has consistently drawn the attention of the international community to, and raised awareness on, the importance of promoting human rights in the response to HIV, most recently in its 5 July 2018 resolution on human rights in the context of HIV.

“Policies requiring compulsory tests for HIV to impose travel restrictions are not based on scientific evidence, are harmful to the enjoyment of human rights and perpetuate discrimination and stigma,” said Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health. “They are a direct barrier to accessing health care and therefore ineffective in terms of public health. I call on states to abolish discriminatory policies that require mandatory testing and impose travel restrictions based on HIV status.”

The new data compiled by UNAIDS include for the first time an analysis of the kinds of travel restrictions imposed by countries and territories and include cases in which people are forced to take a test to renew a residency permit. The data were validated with Member States through their permanent missions to the United Nations.

UNAIDS and UNDP, as the convenor of the Joint Programme’s work on human rights, stigma and discrimination, are continuing to work with partners, governments and civil society organizations to change all laws that restrict travel based on HIV status as part of the Global Partnership for Action to Eliminate all Forms of HIV-Related Stigma and Discrimination. This is a partnership of United Nations Member States, United Nations entities, civil society and the private and academic sectors for catalysing efforts in countries to implement and scale up programmes and improve shared responsibility and accountability for ending HIV-related stigma and discrimination.

*The 48 countries and territories that still have some form of HIV related travel restriction are: Angola, Aruba, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei Darussalam, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, New Zealand, Oman, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

UNAIDS

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) leads and inspires the world to achieve its shared vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. UNAIDS unites the efforts of 11 UN organizations—UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNFPA, UNODC, UN Women, ILO, UNESCO, WHO and the World Bank—and works closely with global and national partners towards ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Learn more at unaids.org and connect with us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.

New report analyses the successes and challenges of the growing global movement against HIV criminalisation

A new report published today (May 29th 2019) by the HIV Justice Network on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE provides clear evidence that the growing, global movement against HIV criminalisation has resulted in more advocacy successes than ever before. However, the number of unjust HIV criminalisation cases and HIV-related criminal laws across the world continue to increase, requiring more attention, co-ordinated advocacy, and funding.

Advancing HIV Justice 3: Growing the global movement against HIV criminalisation provides a progress report of achievements and challenges in global advocacy against HIV criminalisation from 1st October 2015 to 31st December 2018.

Although the full report is currently only available in English, a four-page executive summary is available now in English, French, Russian and Spanish.  The full report will be translated into these languages and made available later this summer.

The problem

HIV criminalisation describes the unjust application of criminal and similar laws to people living with HIV based on HIV-positive status, either via HIV-specific criminal statutes or general criminal or similar laws. It is a pervasive illustration of how state-sponsored stigma and discrimination works against a marginalised group of people with immutable characteristics. As well as being a human rights issue of global concern, HIV criminalisation is a barrier to universal access to HIV prevention, testing, treatment and care.

Across the globe, laws used for HIV criminalisation are often written or applied based on myths and misconceptions about HIV and its modes of transmission, with a significant proportion of prosecutions for acts that constitute no or very little risk of HIV transmission, including: vaginal and anal sex when condoms had been used or the person with HIV had a low viral load; oral sex; and single acts of breastfeeding, biting, scratching or spitting.

Our global audit of HIV-related laws found that a total of 75 countries (103 jurisdictions) have laws that are HIV-specific or specify HIV as a disease covered by the law. As of 31st December 2018, 72 countries had reported cases: 29 countries had ever applied HIV-specific laws, 37 countries had ever applied general criminal or similar laws, and six countries had ever applied both types of laws.

Cases infographic During our audit period, there were at least 913 arrests, prosecutions, appeals and/or acquittals in 49 countries, 14 of which appear to have applied the criminal law for the first time. The highest number of cases were in Russia, Belarus and the United States. When cases were calculated according to the estimated number of diagnosed people living with HIV, the top three HIV criminalisation hotspots were Belarus, Czech Republic and New Zealand.

Screenshot 2019-05-29 at 10.27.51The pushback

Promising and exciting developments in case law, law reform and policy took place in many jurisdictions: two HIV criminalisation laws were repealed; two HIV criminalisation laws were found to be unconstitutional; seven laws were modernised; and at least four proposed laws were withdrawn. In addition, six countries saw precedent-setting cases limiting the overly broad application of the law through the use of up-to-date science.

Screenshot 2019-05-29 at 10.29.06The solution

Progress against HIV criminalisation is the result of sustained advocacy using a wide range of strategies. These include:

  • Building the evidence base Research-based evidence has proven vital to advocacy against HIV criminalisation. In particular, social science research has been used to challenge damaging myths and to identify who is being prosecuted, in order to help build local and regional advocacy movements.
  • Ensuring the voices of survivors are heard HIV criminalisation advocacy means ensuring that HIV criminalisation survivors are welcomed and supported as advocates and decision-makers at all stages of the movement to end HIV criminalisation.
  • Training to build capacity Successful strategies have focused on grassroots activists, recognising that training events must be community owned and provide opportunities for diverse community members to come together, hold discussions, set agendas, and build more inclusive coalitions and communities of action.
  • Using PLHIV-led research to build community engagement capacity Research led by people living with HIV (PLHIV) provides a mechanism to engage communities to develop in-depth understanding of issues and build relationships, mobilise and organise.

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  • Using science for justice HIV criminalisation is often based on outdated and/or inaccurate information exaggerating potential harms of HIV infection. In addition, HIV-related prosecutions frequently involve cases where no harm was intended; where HIV transmission did not occur, was not possible or was extremely unlikely; and where transmission was neither alleged nor proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Engaging decision-makers through formal processes Activists have worked to bring about legal and policy changes not only by lobbying local decision-makers, but also by engaging in other formal processes including using international mechanisms to bring HIV criminalisation issues to the attention of state or national decision-makers.
  • Acting locally and growing capacity through networks Many community organisations working to limit HIV criminalisation are actively supporting grassroots community advocates’ participation at the decision-making table.
  • Getting the word out and engaging with media Activists have employed diverse strategies to extend the reach of advocacy against HIV criminalisation including pushing the issue onto conference agendas, presenting messaging through video, working through digital media forums, using public exhibitions to push campaign messaging, and holding public demonstrations. Sensationalist headlines and misreporting of HIV-related prosecutions remain a major issue, perpetuating HIV stigma while misrepresenting the facts. Activists are endeavouring to interrupt this pattern of salacious reporting, working to improve media by pushing alternative, factual narratives and asking journalists to accurately report HIV-related cases with care.

Acknowlegements

Advancing HIV Justice 3 was written on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE by the HIV Justice Network’s Senior Policy Analyst, Sally Cameron, with the exception of the Global overview, which was written by HIV Justice Network’s Global Co-ordinator, Edwin J Bernard, who also edited the report.

We would especially like to acknowledge the courage and commitment of the growing number of advocates around the world who are challenging laws, policies and practices that inappropriately regulate and punish people living with HIV. Without them, this report would not have been possible.

rcnf 346x228We gratefully acknowledge the financial contribution of the Robert Carr Fund to this report.

A note about the limitations of the data

The data and case analyses in this report cover a 39-month period, 1 October 2015 to 31 December 2018. This begins where the second Advancing HIV Justice report – which covered a 30-month period, 1 April 2013 to 30 September 2015 – left off. Our data should be seen as an illustration of what may be a more widespread, but generally undocumented, use of the criminal law against people with HIV.

Similarly, despite the growing movement of advocates and organisations working on HIV criminalisation, it is not possible to document every piece of advocacy, some of which takes place behind the scenes and is therefore not publicly communicated.

Despite our growing global reach we may still not be connected with everyone who is working to end HIV criminalisation, and if we have missed you or your work, we apologise and hope that you will join the movement (visit: www.hivjusticeworldwide.org/en/join-the-movement) so we can be in touch and you can share information about your successes and challenges.

Consequently, this report can only represent the tip of the iceberg: each piece of information a brief synopsis of the countless hours and many processes that individuals, organisations, networks, and agencies have dedicated to advocacy for HIV justice.


Suggested citation: Sally Cameron and Edwin J Bernard. Advancing HIV Justice 3: Growing the global movement against HIV criminalisation. HIV Justice Network, Amsterdam, May 2019.

Belarus: Welcoming important developments in the fight against unjust HIV criminalisation

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE along with our partners at The Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS and Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) welcome this week’s announcement of an amendment to Article 157 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, which finally allows consent following disclosure to sexual partner as a defence. Whilst recognizing there is still a long way to go to remove all unjust criminal laws against people living with HIV in Belarus, we congratulate our partners and colleagues in Belarus People PLUS for this achievement!

Today, Parliamentarians of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus adopted in the second reading three bills, one of which was the law “On introducing amendments to some codes of the Republic of Belarus”. Among other changes, an amendment was adopted to article 157 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (one of the most draconian HIV-specific criminal laws in the world), which now allows that people who have warned their partners will no longer be held criminally responsible for potential or perceived HIV exposure or transmission.

Read Yana’s story on GNP+’s website

Until today, Article 157 states that people living with HIV are totally criminally liable for potential or perceived HIV exposure or transmission, even if the so-called injured party had no complaints against their partner, knew about the risks and consented. Prosecutions took place because infectious disease doctors informed police and many people were convicted (read Yana’s story here)

In 2017, 130 criminal cases were initiated under Article 157 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, with another 48 in the first half of 2018. Now, it will be possible to revisit those cases.

Anatoly Leshenok, representative of the NGO, People Plus states: “The adopted changes are only the first step in achieving our goal of decriminalising HIV transmission. According to information received from the department for drafting bills, other, more fundamental changes to Article 157 of the Criminal Code of Belarus have not been approved. It is necessary to continue to work with these State structures and with public opinion in order to form a more tolerant attitude towards HIV-positive people. But those changes that have been adopted today –  that’s a success for our team! ”

Anatoly Leshenok. Photo: UNAIDS Country Office in Belarus
Anatoly Leshenok. Photo: UNAIDS Country Office in Belarus

After approval by the Council of the Republic and the President, the amendments will make it possible to revisit previous sentences of the courts, and improve lives of people that were broken previously, as well it provide opportunity now and in the future for people living with HIV in serodiscordant partnerships to plan their lives without worrying if they are criminals every time they have sex.