How is the Expert Consensus Statement bringing science to justice?

Two years ago this month saw the launch of the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law (Expert Consensus Statement) at a press conference during AIDS2018 in Amsterdam, published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society (JIAS), and translated into French, Russian and Spanish.

Authored by 20 of the world’s leading HIV scientists, and endorsed by more than 70 additional expert scientists, as well as IAPAC, IAS and UNAIDS, the Expert Consensus Statement described current evidence on HIV transmission, treatment effectiveness and forensics so that HIV-related science may be better understood in criminal law contexts.

The Expert Consensus Statement was the end result of a multi-year process developed by a partnership comprising the International AIDS Society (IAS), the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (IAPAC), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee.

The HIV Justice Network has now published an interim scoping report, written by HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst Sally Cameron, that explores the impact of the Expert Consensus Statement in the two years since its publication.

The report concludes that the Expert Consensus Statement is meeting both its primary aim (to support defence arguments in HIV criminalisation cases) and its secondary aim (supporting lobbying for law and policy reform) in many jurisdictions. But it also found that the process of developing and promoting the content of the Expert Consensus Statement has delivered additional benefits that further support advocacy efforts to end HIV criminalisation.

In summary, the Expert Consensus Statement is being used to:

  • Assist HIV criminalisation defence arguments and strategic litigation, changing courts’ understanding of transmission risks associated with HIV and the effectiveness of modern treatments.
  • Shape advocacy for law and policy reform, including mobilising stakeholders to lobby for reform, delivering law and policy reform, improving legal and judicial practice, facilitating community advocates’ access to government and judicial bodies, and gaining support from public health bodies and customary and religious leaders.
  • Inform scientific and medical thinking, including being cited in many peer reviewed articles and in scientific and medical press, being hosted on the sites of scientific/medical/academic organisations, and being ranked the #1 JIAS article to date.
  • Develop stronger relationships that cross silos and advance capacity, enabling efficient and informal communications between partners to rapidly move projects forward, with Expert Consensus Statement authors supporting community organisations by assisting in defence cases, answering ad hoc questions and co-authoring abstracts, presentations and articles.
  • Disseminate accurate, positive messages about people living HIV and the issue of HIV criminalisation, including facilitating keynote addresses and presentations at notable conferences and meetings, and generating global mainstream, community and social media. Ultimately, interest in the Expert Consensus Statement has elevated the global conversation about HIV criminalisation, with co-ordinated messaging translating into a powerful positive narrative in many sites.

 

Canadian study provides damning evidence of the “dramatic overrepresentation” of Black men in HIV criminalisation news reporting

A new study published this month by a group of leading Canadian social science academics provides damning evidence of the extraordinary over-representation of Black and Black immigrant male defendants in news reporting of Canadian HIV criminalisation cases.

Eric Mykhalovskiy and Colin Hastings from York University, Toronto; Chris Sanders from Lakehead University, Thunder Bay; and Laura Bisaillon from the University of Toronto Scarborough, analysed 1680 English-language articles published between 1989 and 2015.

They found that Black men comprised 21% of those charged with HIV criminalisation offences – which under Canadian law relates to non-disclosure of known HIV-positive status, usually charged as aggravated sexual assault –  but were the focus of 62% of newspaper articles covering the issue. The pattern was amplified for Black men who were immigrants or refugees who made up 15% of those charged but were the focus of 61% of newspaper stories.

The researchers note:

“The result is a type of popular racial profiling in which HIV non-disclosure is treated as a crime of Black men who are represented as dangerous, hypersexual foreigners who threaten the health and safety of the public and, more broadly, the imagined Canadian nation.”

 

The study is important for more than its quantitative findings, as it also considers the role of the media in the construction of public perception.

The researchers argue that media reporting involves a process of “recontextualization,” which occurs when speech is selected and moved from one place (e.g. a court) and fitted into another for a different purpose (e.g. a media story). In other words, they say, information is “selectively reported and repurposed into news stories”.

Their analysis found that in media reporting of HIV criminalisation cases, ‘whiteness’ became a neutral position. This usually meant that when a person was white their ethnicity or immigration status was rarely, if ever, mentioned.

For Black men living with HIV, however, the researchers found that the reporting was racialised, depicting such men as morally blameworthy and discussing them in terms of their “immigration status, hypersexuality, and other forms of racialised difference”.

Consequently, they argue, Black men living with HIV are depicted in these news reports not only as a threat to individual complainants, but also as a threat to Canadian society.

The researchers also discussed how news media reporting routinely involves forms of writing that silence people facing HIV-related criminal charges. Their experiences are rarely heard which, they summise, is likely due to reporters’ decisions about who to quote, as well as defendants being discouraged by their laywers to publicly comment on their cases.

Consequently, people living with HIV involved in HIV criminalisation cases are only spoken about, and their lives are only known about within the context of crime stories.

The authors hope their analysis will help advocates “to intervene in popular news coverage of HIV non-disclosure”, urging the use of counter-narratives emphasising how HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission should be seen as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue.

They conclude:

The profound silencing of Black immigrant men in newspaper coverage of HIV non-disclosure suggests the need to support strategies that create an affirmative presence in mainstream media for Black men living with HIV.


Source

Eric Mykhalovskiy, Chris Sanders, Colin Hastings & Laura Bisaillon (2020) Explicitly racialised and extraordinarily over-represented: Black immigrant men in 25 years of news reports on HIV non-disclosure criminal cases in Canada, Culture, Health & Sexuality, DOI: 10.1080/13691058.2020.1733095

Further resources

 

France: HIV organisations mobilise to halt sensationalism of news coverage in police violence case

Spit and HIV: the violence of words

Automatic translation via Deepl.com. For original article in French, please scroll down.

Spit and HIV: the violence of words

Following the release of an amateur video in which a police officer stopped and violently beat a demonstrator, a spokesperson for the police union Alliance, in defence of the officer involved, claimed that the person stopped spat blood in the officer’s face and said, “I have AIDS, you’re going to die. Since then, the victim has denied living with HIV and having threatened the police officers with “contamination” by spitting on them.

The case has swelled up in some media outlets, which have taken up the police unionist’s explanations without deflating the sensationalism surrounding the “danger” of spitting on an HIV-positive person.

Faced with this, many of his AIDS activists and associations of people living with HIV intervened to put the facts in their place, regardless of the position of responsibility that existed during the arrest. “The rapidity of news coverage regularly implies approximations or, worse, leaving room for false beliefs. This is particularly true with regard to HIV/AIDS. But to allow false ideas to be conveyed is to feed the serophobia that plays into the hands of the epidemic,” explains AIDES in its press release published in emergency on 20 January.

On Twitter, the president of Act Up-Paris, Marc-Antoine Bartoli, is moved and says that “aggression or “the attack on AIDS does not exist”. A few weeks ago Act Up New York had to deal with a similar case. It is important to remember that people who test positive for HIV have access to treatment that makes their viral load undetectable and cannot transmit HIV. First fact. The second is that, first and foremost, “the modes of contamination are sexual secretions, breast milk, blood. Saliva does not transmit HIV. Moreover, HIV has very low resistance to the open air. After five to ten seconds in the open air, a drop of blood no longer contains the virus,” AIDES recalls.

These simple indications would have deflated a Serophobic line of defence from the outset, continuing to play on irrational fears. “It is everyone’s responsibility to recall this information as soon as necessary. Without this, stigmatization and false beliefs will not be able to stop,” continues AIDES. And the media have their role to play in informing. This is what Fred Colby, a gay activist who is openly HIV-positive and committed to AIDES, is calling for: “People living with HIV are not walking viruses. People living with HIV are not walking viruses. The media needs to think before they publish this kind of thing or qualify it by talking about treatment and undetectable viral load. Without this prerequisite, this spitting case is likely to come back in the news, without any lessons being learned from the previous one. Again to the detriment of HIV-positive people.


Crachat et VIH : la violence des maux

À la suite de la diffusion d’une vidéo amateur, dans laquelle un policier interpelle et frappe violemment un manifestant, le porte-parole du syndicat de policiers Alliance affirmait, pour la défense de l’officier mis en cause, que la personne interpellée aurait craché du sang au visage du policier en disant : « J’ai le sida, tu vas crever ». Depuis, la victime réfute vivre avec le VIH et avoir menacé les policiers de « contamination » en leur crachant dessus. L’affaire a enflé dans certains médias, qui ont repris à leur compte les explications du syndicaliste de la police, sans pour autant dégonfler le sensationnalisme autour du « danger » d’un crachat d’une personne séropositive au VIH. Face à cela, de nombreux-ses militants-es de la lutte contre le sida et des associations de personnes vivant avec sont intervenus pour remettre les faits à leur place, peu importe la position sur les responsabilités en cours durant l’arrestation. « La rapidité de traitement de l’actualité implique régulièrement des approximations ou pire, de laisser la place à de fausses croyances. C’est particulièrement vrai concernant le VIH/sida. Or, laissez véhiculer de fausses idées, c’est nourrir la sérophobie qui fait le jeu de l’épidémie », explique AIDES dans son communiqué publié en urgence, le 20 janvier. Sur Twitter, le président d’Act Up-Paris, Marc-Antoine Bartoli, s’émeut et indique que « l’agression ou « l’attaque au sida n’existe pas ». Il y a quelques semaines Act up New-York a eu à faire à un cas similaire. Il est important de rappeler que les personnes dépistées séropositives ont accès à un traitement qui rend leur charge virale indétectable et ne peuvent pas transmette le VIH. Premier fait. Le second, c’est qu’avant toute chose, « les modes de contamination sont les sécrétions sexuelles, le lait maternel, le sang. La salive ne transmet pas le VIH. De plus, le VIH a une très faible résistance à l’air libre. Après cinq à dix secondes à l’air libre, une goutte de sang ne contient plus de virus », rappelle AIDES. Ces simples indications auraient permis de dégonfler d’emblée une ligne de défense sérophobe, continuant de jouer sur les peurs irrationnelles. « Il est de la responsabilité de toutes et tous de rappeler dès que nécessaires ces informations. Sans cela, les stigmatisations et fausses croyances ne pourront pas cesser », continue AIDES. Et les médias ont leur rôle d’information à jouer. C’est ce que réclame Fred Colby, activiste gay, ouvertement séropositif et engagé à AIDES: « Les personnes vivant avec le VIH ne sont pas des virus ambulants. Il faut que les médias réfléchissent avant de publier ce genre de choses ou nuancent en parlant du traitement et de la charge virale indétectable ». Sans ce préalable, cette affaire du crachat risque de revenir dans l’actualité, sans qu’aucune leçon ne soit tirée de la précédente. Au détriment, encore, des personnes séropositives.

US: Reporter fired for pushing misleading information in story about man who allegedly spat at Port Authority Officer

WCBS Fires Reporter for Pushing False HIV Fears in Arrest Story

TV outlet, Port Authority police union linked suspect’s alleged spitting to infection risk.

CBS New York confirmed to Gay City News that it has fired a reporter who stoked fear and pushed misinformation about HIV transmission in a story about the arrest of a man who allegedly spit at a Port Authority police officer.

CBS New York has fired a reporter they say was responsible for pushing insensitive and misleading narratives about HIV/ AIDS in a story that blew up on social media on December 8 and 9, a spokesperson confirmed to Gay City News.

As reported by Gay City News, the local CBS affiliate in New York published an article and social media posts implying that an HIV-positive man who allegedly spit on a Port Authority police officer was somehow putting the cop at risk for the virus, despite the fact that HIV cannot be transmitted by saliva.

The reporter described the alleged spitting incident as an “HIV ATTACK” in a tweet, and wrote in the article that the “suspect admitted they spit into an officer’s mouth knowing they had HIV.”

“This online story should not have been published,” CBS New York wrote to Gay City News in a written statement. “It does not meet our journalistic standards, nor does it reflect our core values. The person who wrote and published the story and social media post failed to review the copy with our news managers. This individual is no longer employed by CBS New York.”

A CBS New York spokesperson declined comment when asked, for purposes of transparency, who was fired. The article in question did not have a byline, though the name of one reporter, Tony Aiello, was listed under the “filed under” section of the article and drew attention from some folks on social media who believed he was behind the story. The spokesperson said he was not the reporter who was fired.

However, the other key piece of the story — that the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association (PAPBA) also pushed false claims about HIV and shared the suspect’s HIV status with CBS — remains unresolved. A union spokesperson interviewed by Gay City News on December 9 tried framing the man who allegedly spit on the officer as someone who tried using his HIV status as some sort of weapon.

“The problem is when a person with an infectious disease has a weapon, we have a problem with that,” said PAPBA public information officer Bob Egbert. “A guy who knowingly has an infectious disease — that’s a problem.”

The union has not apologized or retracted any comments, raising the likelihood that advocates who have strongly condemned the news story and the PAPBA comments will continue raising concerns and the controversy will continue to metastasize.

The stigmatization and misinformation infuriated the LGBTQ community and local advocacy organizations who reacted with shock and outrage toward CBS New York and the PAPBA when the article and tweets surfaced. On the afternoon of December 9, ACT UP NY, Bailey House, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Housing Works, and VOCAL-NY were among those who vowed to raise their concerns in a demonstration at CBS headquarters in Manhattan on December 10.

Making Media Work for HIV Justice: An introduction to media engagement for advocates opposing HIV criminalisation now available in Spanish, French and Russian

Today, HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE has published “Making Media Work for HIV Justice: An introduction to media engagement for advocates opposing HIV criminalisation” in three additional languages: Spanish, French and Russian. [Click on the image to download the pdf]

The pMedia toolkit - Frenchurpose of this critical media toolkit is to inform and equip global grassroots advocates who are engaged in media response to HIV criminalisation–and to demystify the practice of working with, and through, media to change the conversation around criminalisation.

The toolkit provides an introduction to the topic of HIV criminalisation and the importance of engageMedia toolkit - Spanishment with media to change narratives around this unjust practice.

The toolkit also includes reporting tips for journalists, designed to educate writers and media makers around the nuances of HIV criminalisation, and the harms of inaccurate and stigmatising coverage.

Finally, the toolkit also includes a number of case studies providing examples of how media played a significant role in the outcome, or the impetus, of HIV criminalisation advocacy.

Media toolkit - RussianPositive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee member organisation that produced the toolkit, has been working on HIV criminalisation for many years, and was an instrumental part of the coalition that brought HIV criminal law reform to the US state of California.

The original English version of “Making Media Work for HIV Justice: An introduction to media engagement for advocates opposing HIV criminalisation” along with the translations, were supported by a grant from the Robert Carr Fund for Civil Society Networks.

The new translations are the latest additions to the HIV JUSTICE Toolkit, currently available in English and French, and soon to be available in Spanish and Russian, which provides resources from all over the world to assist advocates in approaching a range of advocacy targets, including lawmakers, prosecutors and judges, police, and the media.

Webinar: Media Strategy in HIV Criminalization Reform Efforts: After HIV Is Not a Crime III Series (PWN-USA, 2019)

For advocates working on campaigns to repeal or reform HIV criminalization laws in their states, the question about when it is and isn’t a good idea to seek press coverage, how to talk about the campaign to the press, and what options are available for controlling the message are all fundamental strategic questions. Positive Women’s Network-USA Communications Director Jennie Smith-Camejo talks strategy and best practices in this webinar based off the in-person breakout session at HIV Is Not a Crime III Training Academy in 2018 as part of the After HINAC III webinar series.

Media session at Beyond Blame preconference outlines stigmatising and harmful media reporting

By Mathew Rodriguez

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — As a news consumer, how can you tell if a story you’re reading about HIV criminalization is actually fair, or has the interests of people living with HIV in mind? Despite a noticeable shift in better coverage for HIV criminalization cases, activists at the Beyond Blame pre-conference to the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam reported that too many journalists rely on harmful frameworks when reporting stories about potential HIV exposures and people with HIV whose bodies are criminalized.

Here are a few ways to see whether or not you’re being told a story that is doing way more harm than good for people living with HIV, as outlined by Janet Butler-McPhee, director of communications and advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Nic Holas, co-founder of Australia’s HIV movement The Institute of Many.

The HIV Monster

Though Butler-McPhee said this narrative is slightly fading, too many journalists still rely on this frame as a way to garner clicks. This narrative paints people with HIV as purposefully hiding their status in order to be deceptive to an HIV-negative person or people. This framework also implies that people with HIV have some innate intent to transmit the virus and that HIV-positive people are all terrifying potential perpetrators of criminal activity.

Aside from othering people with HIV, this narrative also turns HIV-negative people into innocent victims with zero agency in their own lives. These narratives often omit pertinent details about the relationship between the accused and accuser. It turns a complex relationship into victims and villains.

It’s racist AF

HIV criminalization and obvious racism go hand in hand. This is very similar to the HIV monster narrative but also relies on racist tropes to tell its story. For instance, in many countries like Canada and the United States, black men are often painted as vectors of disease who are preying on innocent white women or white gay men. This narrative happens with other marginalized groups, as well.

The story claims HIV criminalization will protect you!

Some stories share the names and information about an HIV-positive person’s HIV criminalization case as a form of “public good” — saying that the public deserves to know someone’s private health information. Butler-McPhee stressed that this is unfortunately rooted in the idea that people with HIV do not have basic rights to privacy and that outing them will do more public good than personal bad — which is wrong . Coverage that relies on outing people with HIV is often inherently racist as well. Their names are published to protect white women.

Stories like this once again put all the onus of public health on HIV-positive people. It also sets HIV apart from every other STI or blood-borne infection, reinforcing the stigmatizing idea that it is somehow scarier or deadlier. Coverage like this also retraumatizes the accused.

Additionally, Holas stressed, local police officers often rely on media to get an accused’s name in headlines and stories to get other potential sex partners to come forward to build a case around them. In cases like this, the media may be unknowingly doing the police force’s work to help criminalize a person with HIV.

The story reports that HIV is easy to transmit and a death sentence.

Any coverage of HIV in 2018 that treats HIV as an automatic death sentence is unscientific and wrong. While it’s true that many people in the global South and even certain regions in the United States might see worse outcomes due to an HIV diagnosis than others, putting the onus on the virus instead of racist socio-economic conditions puts people with HIV at risk. When discussing HIV criminalization, stories too often rely on people’s fear of the virus rather than reality to prove their point.

“It’s easy to disclose your HIV status, so just do it!”

If there’s one thing that HIV criminalization stories prove, it’s that living with HIV in 2018 is a serious risk for personal safety. However, many stories still push the idea that disclosure is the end-all-be-all of living with HIV and that it is the “morally correct” thing to do, even when the story itself is showing the many negative consequences that can come along with HIV disclosure.

These stories also don’t take into the account the pervasive violence and stigma that people living with HIV face daily. As Holas said, these stories revolve around the idea that “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”  

For those in the media interested in improving their coverage or for advocates looking to make sure their messaging on HIV criminalization is media-ready, the HIV Justice Network does have a guide on HIV criminalization and the media.

 

Published in INTO on July 23, 2018

Canada: Recent case in British Columbia demonstrates the "cycle of fear, stigma and misinformation surrounding HIV"

Misinformation is the real culprit in British Columbia HIV case

Police and media left out key details of HIV non-disclosure charges – 

The case of Brian Carlisle shows that when it comes to HIV, what you don’t know can hurt you.

Last summer, Mission RCMP reported that Carlisle, a 47-year-old marijuana activist, had been charged with three counts of aggravated sexual assault for not disclosing to his sexual partners that he has HIV. The RCMP posted Carlisle’s name and photo, asking for any other partners who might have been exposed to come forward.

At the time, the RCMP said that while they would not normally publish private medical information, “the public interest clearly outweighs the invasion of Mr Carlisle’s privacy.”

Xtra does not usually publish the names of people charged with HIV non-disclosure, but Carlisle has given permission to Xtra to publish his name and HIV status.

In the following months, three charges of aggravated sexual assault against Carlisle swelled into 12.

But the RCMP failed to mention a crucial fact: Carlisle couldn’t transmit the virus to anyone.

After studying thousands of couples over decades of research, HIV scientists around the world have reached the consensus that people with HIV who regularly take medication and achieve a suppressed viral load cannot transmit the virus through sexual contact. Like most HIV patients in British Columbia, Carlisle’s viral load was suppressed, so none of the women he had sex with were in any danger of contracting the virus.

Months after publicly disclosing his HIV status, Crown prosecutors stayed all charges against Carlisle. But it became stunningly clear that not only had the police not fully informed the public that Carlisle was uninfectious, they also hadn’t properly informed Carlisle’s alleged victims.

One woman who had sex with Carlisle told the CBC anonymously about going through PTSD, anxiety and depression, losing her job and going bankrupt because she thought she might have HIV.

Not only did the woman mistakenly think she could have contracted HIV, she also said she thought she still might become infected. Nine months after charges were laid against Carlisle, she told the CBC she still had to “wait one more year to know if I have HIV or not,” and that she was still taking HIV tests every three months to ensure the virus did not appear. She said she still avoids sexual relationships out of fear of having to disclose that she might have HIV.

This understanding of how HIV testing works is catastrophically wrong. Modern HIV testing technology, like that used by the BC Centre for Disease Control, catches 99 percent of new HIV infections only six weeks after a new infection. If even that window is too large, new technologies like RNA amplification, also used in BC, can cut the time down to only two weeks.

Even if Carlisle’s viral load had been high enough to transmit the virus, which it was not, the women he had sex with could have been given a clear bill of health only days after the RCMP knocked on their doors.

The CBC, however, did not correct the woman’s misinformation, and reported as fact that the women involved would have to undergo annual testing to make sure they do not have HIV.

Mission RCMP would not confirm at what point they discovered that Carlisle’s viral load was suppressed, or when they informed the women involved, because they say the investigation into Carlisle is still open. It’s also not clear who told the women they might be infected, or that they required yearly HIV testing.

Regardless what you think of Carlisle’s choice not to inform his sexual partners that he had HIV, and regardless whether you care about the publication of his name and HIV positive status, much of the psychological harm suffered by the women in Carlisle’s case was for nothing. Accurate medical information might have saved them months or years of anxiety, fear and isolation.

Carlisle’s case is an example of what many HIV experts say is a cycle of fear, stigma and misinformation surrounding HIV, propelled by police and prosecutors’ use of the criminal law against people who are HIV positive. Criminal prosecutions, experts say, make people less likely to seek medical help or get tested, and can increase the likelihood of new infections. One study found thathalf of the targets of HIV non-disclosure prosecutions are Black men, and nearly 40 per cent are men with male partners.

Media reports in other high profile Canadian HIV cases have also skimmed over the medical science, adding to public confusion around HIV safety.  

In December, a federal government report recommended that prosecutors should move away from the “blunt instrument” of the criminal law to handle HIV non-disclosure cases, and the government of Ontario announced it would stop prosecuting cases involving people with low viral loads. BC’s attorney general said in December he would also reconsider the province’s policy, but recent updates to the Crown counsel policy manual do not rule out prosecuting people whose viral load makes the virus intransmissible.

Regardless of the law, the least that the police and journalists can do is be honest and accurate about the actual risks involved in HIV cases. Carlisle’s case shows just how devastating ignorance can be.

Published in Xtra on May 5, 2018

 

 

Mexico: Supreme Court finds Veracruz law criminalising ‘wilful transmission’ of HIV and STIs to be unconstitutional

Following a Constitutional challenge initiated in February 2016 by the Multisectoral Group on HIV / AIDS and STIs of Veracruz and the National Commission on Human Rights, and supported by HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice yesterday found by eight votes (out of 11) that the amendment to Article 158 of the Penal Code of the State of Veracruz to be invalid as it violates a number of fundamental rights: equality before the law; personal freedom; and non-discrimination.

The full ruling is not yet available, but according to a news story published yesterday in 24 Horas.

…it was pointed out that the criminal offense is “highly inaccurate” because it does not establish what or what is a serious illness, besides it is not possible to verify the fraud in the transmission [and] that although the measure pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the right to health, especially for women and girls, the measure did not exceed the analysis of need because it was not ideal and optimal for the protection of that purpose, especially as [Veracruz] already criminalised the ‘willful putting at risk of contagion of serious illnesses’…

Additionally, Letra S reports,

The Minister President of the Court, Luis María Aguilar Morales, took up the recommendations of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV / AIDS and the Oslo Declaration on HIV Criminalisation, regarding the criminalization of HIV, and argued that this article left to the will of the investigating authority to decide which diseases will be considered as serious and which will not, going against the principle of legality, which implies that the crimes cannot be indeterminate or ambiguous.

In this case, the President said, the article did not establish whether STIs are only those considered serious or any, regardless of their severity. In turn, the justices determined that the resolution has a retroactive effect, that is, that those persons tried under the offense established by this article, the resolutions are invalidated.

 

Background

On August 4, 2015, the Congress of the State of Veracruz approved an amendment to Article 158 of the Criminal Code in order to add the term Sexually Transmitted Infections, which included HIV and HPV. 

It provided for a penalty ranging from 6 months to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to 50 days of salary for anyone who “willfully” infects another person with a disease via sexual transmission.

The amendment, proposed by the deputy Mónica Robles Barajas of the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico, said the legislation was aimed at protecting women who can be infected by their husbands. “It’s hard for a woman to tell her husband to use a condom,” she said in an interview with the Spanish-language online news site Animal Político.

On February 16, 2016, the National Human Rights Commission responded to the request of the Multisectoral Group on HIV / AIDS and STIs of the state of Veracruz and other civil society organizations, and filed an action of unconstitutionality against the reform in the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, which it said does not fulfill its objective of preventing the transmission of sexual infections to women and girls, but rather creates discrimination of people living with HIV and other STIs.

In October 2016, following a press conference at the National Commission on Human Rights (pictured above) that generated a great deal of media coverage, including a TV report, HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE delivered a letter to the Mexican Supreme Court highlighting that a law such as that of Veracruz does not protect women against HIV but rather increases their risk and places women living with HIV, especially those in positions vulnerable and abusive relationships, at disproportionate risk of both proseuction and violence.

In October 2017, the first Spanish-language ‘HIV Is Not A Crime’ meeting took place in Mexico City, supported by the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition where a new Mexican Network against HIV Criminalisation was established.

The Network issued a Statement yesterday which concluded:

We applaud the declaration of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, which gives us the reason for the unconstitutionality request, shared with the National Commission of Human Rights; For this reason, we suggest to the deputies of the Congresses of the State that before legislating, they should be trained in the subject and that they do not forget that their obligation is to defend Human Rights, not to violate them.

Finally, the Mexican Network against the Criminalization of HIV recognizes that there are still many ways to go and many battles to fight, but we can not stop celebrating this important achievement.

 

Edwin Bernard (HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE) and Patricia Ponce (Grupo Multisectorial Veracruz) presenting the letter to Supreme Court of the Nation, Mexico City.
Edwin Bernard (HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE) and Patricia Ponce (Grupo Multisectorial Veracruz) presenting the letter to Supreme Court of the Nation, Mexico City.

Read the English text of the HIV JUSTICE WORLWIDE amicus letter below.

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE

This is a letter of support from HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE[1] to Grupo Multi VIH de Veracruz / National Commission of Human Rightswho are challenging Article 158 of Penal Code of the Free and Independent State of Veracruz that criminalises ‘intentional’ exposure to sexually transmitted infections or other serious diseases, on the grounds that this law violates a number of fundamental rights: equality before the law; personal freedom; and non-discrimination.

As a coalition of organisations working to end the overly broad use of criminal laws against people living with HIV, we respectfully share Grupo Multi VIH de Veracruz’s concerns around Article 158 which potentially stigmatises people with sexually transmitted diseases and criminalises ‘intentional’ exposure to sexually transmitted infections (potentially including HIV) or other serious diseases.

All legal and policy responses to HIV (and other STIs) should be based on the best available evidence, the objectives of HIV prevention, care, treatment and support, and respect for human rights. There is no evidence that criminalising HIV ‘exposure’ has HIV prevention benefits. However, there are serious concerns that the trend towards criminalisation is causing considerable harm.

Numerous human rights and public health concerns associated with the criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure and/or potential or perceived exposure and/or transmission have led the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), [2] the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health,[3]  the Global Commission on HIV and the Law[4]  and the the World Health Organization[5],  to urge governments to limit the use of the criminal law to extremely rare cases of intentional transmission of HIV (i.e., where a person knows his or her HIV-positive status, acts with the intention to transmit HIV, and does in fact transmit it). They have also recommended that prosecutions [for intentional transmission] “be pursued with care and require a high standard of evidence and proof.” [6]

In 2013, UNAIDS produced a comprehensive Guidance Note to assist lawmakers understand critical legal, scientific and medical issues relating to the use of the law in this way.[7] In particular, UNAIDS guidance stipulates that:

  • “[I]ntent to transmit HIV cannot be presumed or solely derived from knowledge of positive HIV status and/or non-disclosure of that status.
  • Intent to transmit HIV cannot be presumed or solely derived from engaging in unprotected sex, having a baby without taking steps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, or by sharing drug injection equipment.
  • Proof of intent to transmit HIV in the context of HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission should at least involve (i) knowledge of positive HIV status, (ii) deliberate action that poses a significant risk of transmission, and (iii) proof that the action is done for the purpose of infecting someone else.
  • Active deception regarding positive HIV-status can be considered an element in establishing intent to transmit HIV, but it should not be dispositive on the issue. The context and circumstances in which the alleged deception occurred—including the mental state of the person living with HIV and the reasons for the alleged deception— should be taken into consideration when determining whether intent to transmit HIV has been proven to the required criminal law standard.”

Moreover, where criminal liability is extended to cases that do not involve actual transmission of HIV (contrary to the position urged by UNAIDS and other experts), such liability should, at the very bare minimum, be limited to acts involving a “significant risk” of HIV transmission. In particular, UNAIDS guidance contains explicit recommendations against prosecutions in cases where a condom was used, where other forms of safer sex were practiced (including oral sex and non-penetrative sex), or where the person living with HIV was on effective HIV treatment or had a low viral load. Being under treatment or using other forms of protections not only show an absence of malicious intent but also dramatically reduces the risks of transmission to a level close to zero. Indeed, a person under effective antiretroviral therapy poses –  at most – a negligible risk of transmission[8] and is therefore no different from someone who is HIV-negative.

Moreover, there is growing body of evidence[9] that such laws that actually or effective criminalise HIV non-disclosure, potential or perceived exposure, or transmission, negatively impact the human rights of people living with HIV due to:

  • selective and/or arbitrary investigations/prosecutions that has a disproportionate impact on racial and sexual minorities, and on women.
  • confusion and fear over obligations under the law;
  • the use of threats of allegations triggering prosecution as a means of abuse or retaliation against a current or former partner;
  • improper and insensitive police investigations that can result in inappropriate disclosure, leading to high levels of distress and in some instances, to loss of employment and housing, social ostracism, deportation (and hence also possibly loss of access to adequate medical care in some instances) for migrants living with HIV in some cases;
  • limited access to justice, including as a result of inadequately informed and competent legal representation;
  • sentencing and penalties that are often vastly disproportionate to any potential or realised harm, including lengthy terms of imprisonment, lifetime or years-long designation as a sex offender (with all the negative consequences for employment, housing, social stigma, etc.);
  • stigmatising media reporting, including names, addresses and photographs of people with HIV, including those not yet found guilty of any crime but merely subject to allegations.

In addition, there is no evidence that criminalising HIV (or other sexually transmitted infections) help protect women and girls from infections.  

Women are often the first in a relationship to know their HIV status due to routine HIV testing during pregnancy, and are less likely to be able to safely disclose their HIV-positive status to their partner as a result of inequality in power relations, economic dependency, and high levels of gender-based violence within relationships.[10]

Such a law does nothing to protect women from the coercion or violence that effectively increases the risk of HIV transmission. On the contrary, such laws place women living with HIV, especially those in vulnerable positions and abusive relationships, at increased risks of both prosecution and violence.

Some evidence suggests that fear of prosecution may deter people, especially those from communities highly vulnerable to acquiring HIV, from getting tested and knowing their status, because many laws only apply for those who are aware of their positive HIV status. [11] HIV criminalisation can also deter access to care and treatment, undermining counselling and the relationship between people living with HIV and healthcare professionals because medical records can be used as evidence in court. [12]

Finally, there is evidence[13] of an additional negative public health impact of such laws in terms of:

  • increasing HIV-related stigma, which has an adverse effect on a person’s willingness to learn about, or discuss, HIV; and
  • undermining the importance of personal knowledge and responsibility (correlative to degree of sexual autonomy) as a key component of an HIV prevention package, when instead prevention of HIV within a consensual sexual relationship is – and should be perceived as – a shared responsibility.

We hope that the Mexico Supreme Court of Justice takes our concerns and all of this evidence into account when considering the Constitutional Challenge.

Yours faithfully,

Edwin J Bernard, Global Co-ordinator, HIV Justice Network

on behalf of all HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners: 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 (PWN-USA); and Sero Project (SERO).

[1] HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE is an initiative made up of global, regional, and national civil society organisations working together to end overly broad HIV criminalisation. The founding partners are: 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 (PWN-USA); and Sero Project (SERO).  The initiative is also supported by Amnesty International, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, UNAIDS and UNDP.

[2] UNAIDS. Policy Brief: Criminalisation of HIV Transmission, August 2008; UNAIDS. Ending overly-broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission: Critical scientific, medical and legal considerations, May 2013.

[3] Anand Grover. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, June 2010.

[4] Global Commission on HIV and the Law. HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights & Health, July 2012.

[5] WHO. Sexual health, human rights and the law. June 2015.

[6] Global Commission on HIV and the Law. HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights & Health, July 2012.

[7] UNAIDS. Ending overly-broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission: Critical scientific, medical and legal considerations, May 2013.

[8] A.J. Rodger et al., “Sexual activity without condoms and risk of HIV transmission in serodifferent couples when the HIV-positive partner is using suppressive antiretroviral therapy,” JAMA 316, 2 (12 July 2016): pp. 171–181.

[9]op cit. Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

[10] Athena Network. 10 Reasons Why Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission Harms Women. 2009.

[11] O’Byrne P et al. HIV criminal prosecutions and public health: an examination of the empirical research. Med Humanities 2013;39:85-90 doi:10.1136/medhum-2013-010366

[12]Ibid.

[13]Op cit. Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

Webinar: Making Media Work for HIV Justice (PWN-USA for HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, 2018)

This 90 minute webinar introduced attendees to some of the concepts and practices highlighted in the Making Media Work for HIV Justice media toolkit, and featured formidable activists, journalists, communications professionals, and human rights defenders working at the intersection of media and HIV criminalisation.

For more information about the media toolkit visit: http://www.hivjustice.net/news/media-toolkit-four-languages/