Australia: New publication examines criminalisation; works as advocacy tool

NAPWA monograph:
click on image to download
There have been some very important policy developments in Australia recently that I’ve been waiting to post about until I’d finished reading the entire (Australian) National Association of People Living With HIV/AIDS (NAPWA) monograph, The Criminalisation of HIV Transmission in Australia: Legality, Morality and Reality, to which I contributed a chapter (as a co-author).

I’ve now read all eleven chapters and I have to say that the monograph is essential reading for anyone interested in the issue of criminalisation. It has provided me with a great deal of insight and food-for-thought as I write my book (an international overview of the issues) for NAM.

As the Honourable Michael Kirby writes in the preface

“NAPWA has collected knowledgeable and informed commentators who have a great awareness of the epidemic in Australia. Without exception, the chapters are thoughtful, balanced and informative. I hope that they will be read in Australia. Indeed, I hope that they will be available overseas to bring enlightenment that is the first step in an effective response to the epidemic.”

You can see video of MP Kay Hull speaking at the launch, held last month in Canberra, here.

The monograph is already working its magic as an advocacy tool. Last week, the Sydney Star Observer reports that HIV organisations in Victoria – where more than half of all Australian prosecutions have taken place – are leading the call to clarify exactly when the public health department will involve the police to deal with people who are not disclosing their HIV status and having unprotected sex.

Contents: click on image to enlarge

One of the chapters in the monograph examines such discrepancies in new state and national guidance on the management of people living with HIV who engage in risky sexual behaviour. The National Guidelines for the Management of People with HIV Who Place Others at Risk were produced in 2008 following the fallout from the Michael Neal and Stuart
McDonald cases. The guidelines recommend that public health authorities refer people who persistently ignore warnings to disclose and/or practise safer sex to the police as a last resort, but aren’t very clear on how this happens in practice.

Victorian AIDS Council executive director Mike Kennedy said although there were guidelines, a recent meeting of AIDS Council heads showed other states were similarly unclear about exactly what circumstances trigger a referral to police. “I’m not aware of any Australian state that has any clear guideline to say how this will happen, so that’s the missing bit from the reviews that were done around the country,” Kennedy said. “Our view is that [protocols] ought to be governed by a set of agreed procedures, not just rely on goodwill and a set of relationships between people in the Health Department and people in the police service because those people change.”

The NAPWA monograph also includes an enlightening chapter on the impact of prosecutions on people living with HIV, concern echoed in this comment in the SSO article from People Living With HIV/AIDS Victoria president Paul Kidd.

[Kidd] said the uncertainty of where criminal charges would be pursued was creating concern among some HIV positive people. “They’re fearful that in the normal course of their sexual lives they could put themselves in a situation where they inadvertently attract the attention of the police,” Kidd said. “We’re not talking about people who are deliberately spreading HIV or behaving in a negligent fashion. We’re talking about ordinary gay men and other people who are HIV positive who live in an environment where unprotected sex is a part of [their] lives.

I’m also reproducing an editorial by Robert Mitchell, NAPWA’s president, below, to give you an idea how NAPWA hopes this monograph will lead to a change in the way Australia deals with criminal prosecutions.

HIV affects us all and, positive or negative, gay or straight, we all have a responsibility to do what we can do prevent HIV transmission. People living with HIV have long accepted the critical role they play in preventing HIV infections, as part of a model of shared responsibility. But the recent increases in criminal prosecutions of HIV exposure and transmission in Australia have caused considerable concern and led some to ask: is that model of shared responsibility breaking down?

In response, last year NAPWA commissioned a collection of papers to examine these issues. We wanted to show how these cases have been prosecuted quite inconsistently across the country, and how they have been represented in the public domain by media coverage. We are launching the resulting monograph, The Criminalisation of HIV Transmission in Australia: Legality, Morality and Reality, this week.

A number of authors with different viewpoints have contributed to the monograph, including academics, legal experts and voices from within the HIV-positive and HIV-affected communities. The end result is a collection of papers that provide rigorous analysis of the current environment in Australia, and other parts of the world, with regards to prosecution of HIV transmission.

This set of materials and commentaries will be the basis for further work on these issues by NAPWA and its member organisations. Our intention is to start a dialogue across the HIV sector and with the broader public health and legal sectors, to examine the issues raised and the impact of criminal prosecutions on the HIV-positive community in Australia today.

While few would argue that an HIV-positive person who deliberately and maliciously sets out to infect another person with HIV has committed an act of violence that should be subject to criminal sanction, very few of the prosecutions in Australia have been in this category. Almost all have been for the ‘knowing and reckless’ category of HIV transmission, where the accused had no intention of transmitting HIV.

The use of criminal law against a person on the basis of HIV status in these circumstances is considered by many to be discriminatory, as it treats the HIV-positive partner as perpetrator and the HIV-negative partner as victim. This shifts the burden of prevention onto people with HIV, and undermines established principles of shared responsibility and safe, consenting, sexual practice.

The blame and persecution directed towards HIV positive people is unacceptable and NAPWA is calling for a review of criminal laws to redress this imbalance. Laws requiring mandatory disclosure by positive people, and laws that treat HIV as inherently more serious than other infections with similar medical impacts, are areas we think need fixing. We need a nationally consistent legal framework that supports public health policy and population health outcomes, and protects the human rights of people with HIV.

NAPWA hopes this work will spark interest and support from across the community to work towards resolving these differences and contradictions. We are working towards a nationally consistent, fair and just legal framework that reinforces rather than degrades the model of shared responsibility and treats HIV as a health issue first and a legal issue only as a last resort.

Canada: Xtra publishes its anti-criminalisation piece-de-resistance

Just a week after Canada’s national gay paper, Xtra, published a radically anti-criminalisation interview on their website,, comes their piece-de-resistance, Beyond the Courts: a smart, well-written and researched 5,000 word essay from queer Canadian writer/advocate Shawn Syms, whose previous writing on criminalisation and the HIV-positive/negative divide was equally insightful and thought-provoking.

In the piece – which will also be published in shorter form as the cover story of next month’s print edition of Toronto’s Xtra – Syms asks (and tries to answer) the question: How do we stop the spread of HIV without dividing our [unspoken HIV-positive versus HIV-negative and untested gay] communities?

Syms brings together many voices from Canada and abroad – including mine – to illustrate the “growing chorus of activists, civil-society advocates and community members [who are] rallying evidence to show that jailing people with HIV only quenches the individual and public thirst for retribution and blame—while failing to prevent onward HIV transmission.”

There’s much to recommend in the piece, but a few things stand out for me.

First, he turns the argument that the law protects HIV-negative people by punishing HIV-positive people for ‘victimising’ HIV-negative people on its head.

The media and police would have us believe that irresponsible people with HIV are out there victimizing others—but we should never forget that the reality is the other way around. People with HIV are an oppressed minority subject to frequent acts of discrimination by others who have power over them—including the accusers in criminalization cases.

Earlier in the piece, he explains how Canada’s criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure does this.

A vindictive person could use their knowledge of someone’s HIV status as a weapon against them. Many believe this is what happened last year in the case of “Diane,” a Montreal woman whose partner suddenly alleged she had not disclosed her HIV status once she pressed charges against him for domestic assault.

Some people with HIV have been threatened by people they’ve never even been intimate with. Fred Meikle of London, Ontario, says he had an exchange last year with an acquaintance in a online chatroom where the person stated, “I should call the police, tell them you didn’t disclose.” Meikle replied “We’ve never even had sex; you sat on my sofa and drank a beer.” He says the man replied, “Well, who do you think they will believe?”—highlighting the rift in social power between HIV-negative and positive gay men.

Understandably, this creates a climate of literal “terror” for people with HIV, says Angel Parks, Positive Youth Outreach coordinator for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT). “This is spiraling out of control,” she says about the upswing in criminal charges. At a recent forum in Ottawa in June, she reports, people with HIV from across the country responded to the criminalization threat with “fear, shame, humiliation, and most of all confusion.” And at the weekly support group she coordinates, “individuals are scared… they don’t know to protect themselves” from the risk of bogus charges.

Now, Syms is not saying that all charges are bogus, but that the law as it had been created and is currently practised by the criminal justice system, is open to abuse. That relatively few cases have involved sex between men is irrelevent. It is the climate of fear and mistrust (on both sides) that worries him (and me).

He analyses this further later in the piece, when he rips apart the too-commonly-believed gay community myth that HIV only affects “hardcore risk takers” whose unbridled ‘barebacking’ turns them into “sexual predators.”

The common perception goes something like this. HIV is extremely dangerous, inevitably fatal and not that hard to get. People with HIV have an obligation to tell all partners before any sexual activity at all—because it’s not possible to consent to sex without knowing if the other person has HIV.

To this way of thinking, anyone who doesn’t disclose is dishonest, untrustworthy and probably addicted to barebacking—after all, if their sense of ethics and responsibility were not so obviously lacking, they wouldn’t have contracted the virus in the first place. And someone like that wouldn’t think twice about giving someone else HIV, on purpose. So the solution is to avoid these people, like the plague.


But gay men haven’t done a good job of passing on the harm-reduction message to new generations, says Richard Berkowitz, one of the originators of safe-sex education in 1983 and subject of the recent documentary Sex Positive. “Today, even progressive gay people fall into the trap of imagining that we are talking about sexual predators who deserve to be locked up.”

The perspective Berkowitz points out hinges upon seeing negative and positive gay men as fundamentally different from one another. This is a mistake, noted Sigma Research’s Ford Hickson in an address to a UK sexual health conference in March. What most often distinguishes positive and negative guys is not ethics or behaviour, but bad luck.

“HIV risk is widespread. It is not the case that a small group of hardcore risk takers account for the new infections,” said Hickson. “The transmissions that occur over the next year will be the unlucky ones in a large population each taking a few risks.”

Finally, he follows the lead of last week’s Xtra interviewee, Bob Watkin, the outgoing Chair of the HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario (HALCO), asking readers to get “angry and loud.”

As Justice Cameron of South Africa told those assembled at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s recent symposium, “some of the Canadian cases are so outrageous, I have wondered why there weren’t protestors outside the courtroom with t-shirts and placards and activists shouting inside the court room. Have you lost your activist fervour?”

Cameron is right. We need to rekindle the queer rage and sense of injustice that fuelled historic LGBT protests, from the response to the bathhouse raids, to the efforts of Gay CourtWatch in the eighties to protect gay men busted on sex-related charges, to the beginnings of the original AIDS activist movement.

And we need a coalition of negative, positive and untested queers and allies to carry out this effort. Criminalization is an extreme manifestation of HIV stigma—and it shouldn’t be only people with HIV who put themselves on the line to fight it. With tools ranging from placard and megaphones to Facebook and Twitter, we need to combat the abuses of the police, the justice system and the media, and demand access to appropriate testing resources and consistent and high-quality sex education for all, regardless of HIV status.

Kudos to Syms, and to Xtra‘s editorial director, Matt Mills, for this piece: the best I’ve seen yet on the issue as it relates to gay men in Canada (and light years ahead of how New Zealand’s gay press is dealing with the issue).

Read the full piece on

Switzerland: New study examines every criminal prosecution; finds Swiss law discriminatory

A new and important study of criminal HIV exposure and transmission cases in Switzerland was published yesterday.

Update: An English-language version of the Swiss AIDS Federation’s six page summary is now available. Download the pdf here.

With the support of Swiss National Science Foundation (see the press release in French and German) and the Swiss AIDS Federation (AIDS-Hilfe Schweiz/AIDS Suisse Contre Le SIDA), researchers Kurt Pärli and Peter Mösch Payot examined 39 individual cases dealt with in 51 separate cantonal (lower and higher) and federal court hearings between 1990 and 2009.

Of the 27 accused where country of origin was known, 11 were born in African countries; 9 were born in Switzerland; 4 were born elsewhere in Europe; 2 were born in Asia and the near East; and one was born in the US.

Three cases did not involve sex. One case involved a doctor who disclosed the HIV-positive status of one of his patients; another case involved the Red Cross and contaminated blood; and the third one involved biting.

The remaining 36 cases involved sex – 31 heterosexual sex, and five sex between men. All but three of these 36 sexual cases involved consensual sex (as opposed to rape or sexual assault).

[Note: the only English-language report so far gets this wrong, saying that all 36 cases took place with the informed consent of the victim. That’s the problem with laws like these: in this case “consensual” means both parties agreed to have sex, and not that the HIV-positive partner had disclosed prior to sex.]

Admittedly, it is a bit complicated, since it is possible to be prosecuted for consensual, unprotected sex with disclosure under Article § 231 (spreading of dangerous diseases). In 21 cases, this law was used. Consequently, in more than half of the convictions there was no transmission of HIV, simply ‘HIV exposure’. Most prison sentences ranged between 18 months and 4 years, plus a fine of up to CHF 80,000 (c. €53,000) as compensation to the ‘victims’. The report authors point out that these sentences are longer than for other (non-HIV-related) ‘crimes’ charged under this statute.

Below is the table of cases (and scenarios discussed in court) adapted from the report.

Unfortunately, the impressive 149-page paper (complete with comparisons with other jurisdictions) is only available in German (this is the link to the complete pdf; 1.4MB ). A six-page fact sheet from the Swiss AIDS Federation summarising the findings is also available in German (and now English).

The authors conclude by recommending the repeal of Article § 231, because, they argue, the law is discriminatory by unfairly placing 100% responsibility on the HIV-positive partner which is in direct contradiction with public health policies.

[Many thanks to my native German-speaking partner, Nick, for helping me understand the paper.]

New Zealand: ‘HIV predator’ case increases testing and stigma

Following the intense media reporting of the alleged ‘HIV predator’ case, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation reports that the case has increased stigma against people already living with HIV, and also increased the number of people coming forward for HIV tests.

The New Zealand Herald quotes NZAF’s national communications co-ordinator Dawn O’Connor.

“While people in New Zealand are aware of the need to get tested the media interest has created a stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV,” she said yesterday.

It then goes on to try and assess the number of HIV tests taken up since the man’s name and photo was released last month.

The NZAF would not say how many tests it had carried out, “out of respect for its clients and their right to confidentiality”, but confirmed a marked increase in demand for HIV testing and counselling compared with this time last year. […] HIV support group Body Positive said 25 to 30 people had now been tested. Craig Webster, a social worker for the agency, said calls continued to come in from all over the country, averaging five to 10 per day.

It’s a conundrum that challenges those who argue that criminal HIV exposure and transmission laws and media reports of prosecutions increase HIV-related stigma and, therefore, have a negative effect on testing.

From the research I’ve been reading and digesting recently, there really is no proof at all that criminal laws or media reports about prosecutions dissuade people at high risk of HIV from taking an HIV antibody test. Although in some cases they might actually persuade some people to test, and in others, may dissuade someone who is highly aware of their actions and the legal repercussions not to test, their aggregate effect on testing is probably neutral.

A colleague who studies the behaviour of people with, and at risk of, HIV in the UK said to me recently that claiming that criminal laws and prosecutions put people off from testing “ascribes too much cool calculation to people who are generally getting on with their lives, and not wanting to think much about HIV.” I think she’s right: there are plenty of reasons why people don’t test for HIV but for most people, worrying about being arrested doesn’t register on the radar at all. HIV is already so stigmatised that the additive effect of being criminalised once you know your HIV-positive status is unlikely to be a significant deterent. This suggests to me that the links made between stigma and testing are perhaps not quite as straightforward as some advocates argue.

However, there is no doubt that for people already diagnosed with HIV criminalisation palpably increases the stresses and fears of living with HIV – and adversely affects their decisions to disclose and take sexual risks – but that is not necessarily the same as putting people off testing.

If anyone knows of studies from outside of the US (I am aware of two: Burris et al, 2007 and Wise 2008) and the UK (summarised in Chalmers 2008) that measure the impact of criminalisation on HIV testing, please let me know!

Global prosecutions league table sees Sweden on top

I’ve just done a rather quick and dirty calculation of prosecutions for HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission per capita, based on GNP+’s Global Criminalisation Scan data, and produced this rather interesting league table.

Despite Canada, the US and Australia being disproportionately represented on my blog, due to the sheer number of prosecutions taking place, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand have actually prosecuted the highest proportion of people with HIV in their respective countries.

Having just returned from an excellent conference organised by HIV Sweden in Stockholm (on which I reported today in this news story, highlights of which are below), it really comes as no surprise that Sweden and Norway head the league of shame.

And last Tuesday, Mr Justice Cameron addressed a meeting in Stockholm organised by HIV Sweden to discuss HIV and the criminal law in Sweden and other Nordic countries.

The meeting heard that Sweden’s laws were often applied selectively and discriminatory, including the recent case of an African migrant woman who had gone to the police after being raped by two men.

However, rather than charge her assailants, the police charged the woman with HIV exposure. The case is still ongoing.

Peter Gröön, of Stockholm County Council, shared data showing that African migrants – ten of the 16 people prosecuted in the past five years – also received longer prison sentences than their Swedish counterparts. Mr Justice Cameron told the meeting that this kind of HIV exceptionalism, which is fuelled by stigma, must not be tolerated. “We want [HIV to be treated] neither better, nor worse than any other disease,” he said.

The meeting also heard that a coalition of grass roots and civil society organisations in Norway might lead to an abolition of Norway’s current HIV exposure and transmission law, Section 155, which has led to ten prosecutions the past five years.

The law, which does not allow HIV-negative people to consent to unprotected sex, and makes little distinction between HIV exposure and transmission, places the burden on HIV-positive individuals to both disclose HIV status and insist on condom use in order to be able to avoid potential prosecution.

Through a campaign that has included providing every MP in Norway with information about the inequities of the law, and a major newspaper article from Mr Justice Cameron, published in May, representatives of HIV Manifesto and HIV Norway were hopeful that the law will be repealed during the country’s revision of the its Penal Code.

The meeting also heard that a similar opportunity might also be possible in Sweden later in the year, during the pubic debate that will follow a proposal to lengthen prison sentences for assault (the law under which criminal HIV exposure and transmission is prosecuted in Sweden).

UK: Report shows police mishandling of investigations into alleged criminal HIV transmission

Below are the opening paragraphs of a news story I wrote for aidsmap about a new THT report about how the police in England are handling investigations into criminal HIV transmission.

The full report, Policing Transmission, can be downloaded from THT.


A new report by the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) launched [on January 27th] at the House of Commons has revealed a systematic mishandling of complaints for alleged criminal HIV transmission in England & Wales. The report, Policing Transmission was welcomed by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which acknowledged that “too many times we have got it wrong”.

There have been “scores, if not hundreds” of arrests since the first conviction for reckless HIV transmission in England and Wales, that of Mohammed Dica in October 2003, noted THT’s Sir Nick Partridge speaking at the launch of the report in the House of Commons, hosted by Lord Norman Fowler, Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on AIDS.

Sir Nick said that whilst most police investigations had been dropped due to a lack of evidence, during the course of these ‘failed’ investigations – which had lasted up to a year – “lives had been turned upside-down and some came close to being destroyed”.

During the period 2005-6, there was an average of one arrest every two weeks. Concerned at this number of arrests and aware of the cost, in terms of “public resources and private misery”, THT approached ACPO and the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) in order to examine the role of the police in criminal HIV transmission investigations.

Read more here.