Editorial: “Leave no-one behind” when working to end HIV criminalisation

An editorial published to coincide with Zero Discrimination Day (March 1) by leaders in the HIV Justice movement celebrates “the courage and commitment of the growing global community of advocates, human rights defenders and others around the world who are challenging laws, policies and practices that inappropriately and unjustly criminalize people living with HIV”, but warns that this work must include and benefit those populations who are the most marginalised, and who remain most vulnerable to prosecution, despite advances in HIV science that are being used to challenge and modernise these laws.

Writing in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, the authors – who include HJN’s Executive Director, Edwin J Bernard; HJN’s Supervisory Board member, Michaela Clayton; and HJN’s Global Advisory Panel member, Edwin Cameron, along with Chris Beyrer, Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and GNP+’s Alexandra Volgina – note that despite many advances in the science of HIV there remains one area that is still an “all too common a threat to the lives and wellbeing of people living with HIV, as well as to the goal of ending the epidemic” – HIV criminalisation.

HIV criminalisation describes the unjust application of criminal and similar laws to people living with HIV ostensibly based on their HIV status, either via HIV‐specific criminal statutes or general criminal or other laws.

Citing data collated from HJN’s global case monitoring which suggests that HIV criminalisation intersects with “discrimination or criminalization on the basis of ethnicity, sex, gender identity, immigration status, sex work, sexuality and/or substance use,” they note that HIV criminalisation can be seen as a “surrogate marker for state‐sponsored stigma and discrimination against marginalized groups of people at higher risk of HIV.”

The editorial also addresses public health and healthcare workers who are often viewed as an extension of the criminal justice system by marginalised populations. “We are also seeing a frightening trend of prosecutions being initiated by those working in healthcare or public health without specific complaints. In some cases, police were notified of a person’s HIV diagnosis by health authorities, which then became a prompt to investigate the person’s relationship with their partner.”

Relatively few countries have repealed or modernised their laws, although efforts are currently underway across the globe, assisted by the 2018 publication of the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law authored by 20 of the world’s leading HIV scientists, including Professor Beyrer.

The editorial celebrates and encourages the growing number of global advocates, human rights defenders and others around the world who are challenging HIV criminalisation but notes that everyone involved in the HIV response needs to play their part. “Ending HIV criminalization is the responsibility of us all,” they argue.

“It is important that we all understand how to ensure justice for all people living with HIV, not just those who have access to treatment and are fortunate enough to be undetectable,” they conclude, “so that we can finally end these outrageously unjust laws, policies and practices against people living with HIV in all of their diversity.”

Australia: New South Wales mandatory testing bill is unnecessary and could be counterproductive

Mandatory disease testing bill ‘could put officers at risk’

NSW Health says a proposed law enabling authorities to force people to undergo testing for bloodborne diseases could actually put frontline workers at greater risk.

The department’s evidence to a parliamentary committee came as a senior NSW police official said it’s “not unusual” for officers to get pelted with faeces mixed with blood.

Getting bitten, spat on, or splashed with blood are some of the unfortunate realities faced on the job by emergency and prison workers, and come with the additional fear of getting infected with bloodborne diseases.

But the risk of infection from such incidents is very low, and drawing blood samples from people against their will could make them less likely to trust health workers to perform voluntary tests, a top NSW Health official said.

Such an increase in mistrust could make it harder for health workers to combat the spread of the diseases, including among prisoners where the prevalence of hepatitis C is up to 20 per cent higher than in the general community, the committee heard.

“The importance of reducing any stigma and discrimination, and improving the quality and accuracy of information about bloodborne viruses is paramount to engaging people in treatment,” said Michelle Cretikos, executive director with NSW Health‘s population and public health division.

“If people are discouraged from accessing treatment, then in fact the risk may increase, both to the people in the community as well as the workers that are looking after them.

“It‘s likely to reduce people’s trust in the health services … and may reduce access to treatment and access to care.”

Since 1994, there have been zero cases of NSW healthcare workers getting infected with HIV after an exposure in the workplace, Dr Cretikos said, pointing to an NSW Health policy directive.

That same directive included a survey of international studies, including an Australian one, all of which failed to turn up a single case of HIV transmission to healthcare workers after exposure to the virus.

“There have been zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero cases in all of those studies … And that’s correct over many years, across many countries,” Dr Cretikos said.

Even when the exposure was in the form of a needle puncture, the transmission risk was calculated at 0.3 per cent.

One Brazilian study conducted between 1997 and 2009 that looked at 80 cases of healthcare workers getting exposed to HIV via needle prick injuries found that none of the workers were infected.

For hepatitis C exposure, the rate of transmission was slightly higher, with a range of nine international studies showing a rate between zero and 2.3 per cent.

That included an Australian study which showed no instances of transmission among 64 incidents of puncture injuries caused by large needles.

A top corrective services official said similar data was difficult to collect for prison staff, because workers were not mandated to let their employers know whether they had a disease or not.

But the fact that there is a risk means there is a need for greater protection, said Gayle Robson, chief of staff to the commissioner of Corrective Services NSW.

“It is (…) sufficient, there is simply a risk of our staff contracting bloodborne viruses,” Ms Robson said.

There was no risk of bloodborne virus infection from many other body fluids such as urine, spit or faeces, or when the skin wasn’t breached, the NSW Health document said.

NSW police deputy commissioner for corporate services Malcolm Lanyon told the committee that out of some 2,500 assaults on police last financial year, 490 involved exposure to bodily fluids, including 69 bites and 29 needlestick injuries.

He said being able to force people to undergo disease testing would significantly reduce the anxiety officers feel when they’ve been exposed to bodily fluids.

“Waiting periods associated with self-testing of the police officer can lead to months of uncertainty, which can be enormously stressful and have lasting psychological impacts on officers and their family,” Commissioner Lanyon said.

And while non-blood body fluids might not pose a disease risk on their own, officers were often exposed to a mix of substances that included blood, he said.

“There are a number of disgusting and degrading acts that happen often when someone is in custody in a cell … It’s not unusual for them to deliberately defecate in there, it’s not unusual for people to then self-harm in that cell, get blood mixed with faeces, and throw that at police officers. That’s not an unusual scenario in custody.”

Corrective Services director Craig Smith similarly said that corrective officers suffer a blow to their mental health when faced with uncertainty over whether they could have been infected.

“I’ve seen grown men cry,” Mr Smith said.

“I agree that the risks are low, (but) it‘s that ‘maybe’.”

Year in review: Celebrating successes, highlighting the many challenges ahead

This past year has shown us what happens when one pandemic –  HIV – is overshadowed by another pandemic, COVID-19.  Despite the many lessons learned from our collective advocacy against HIV criminalisation that we and our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners highlighted in March, these lessons were mostly ignored by policymakers around the world.

The result was a series of knee-jerk legal, policy and police responses leading to the overzealous policing of people living with HIV and other key and inadequately served populations already subject to existing inequalities in law and policy, which we have been highlighting in our HIV Justice Weekly newsletter since March.

This latest pandemic overshadowed, and in some cases undermined, the work we and others have been doing to ensure a fair, just, rational and evidence-based response towards people living with HIV by the criminal justice system.

This past year we documented at least 90 cases of unjust HIV criminalisation in 25 countries, with Russia and the United States being the worse offenders.  Women living with HIV were accused in 25% of those cases. Three of these cases were for breastfeeding.  In the United States, more than 50% of those accused in HIV criminalisation cases were people of colour.  

2020 also saw Poland passing a new law against COVID-19 that also increased the criminal penalty for HIV exposure, and number of disappointing HIV criminalisation higher court appeals in the US (Ohio), and Canada (Ontario and Alberta) that appeared to ignore science over stigma.

And yet, despite the many difficulties of 2020, the movement to end unjust HIV criminalisation has continued to gain momentum.

In the United States, Washington State modernised its HIV-specific criminal law in March, reducing the ‘crime’ from a felony to a misdemeanour, adding in a number of defences, and eliminating the sex offender registration requirement.  Earlier this month, legislators in Missouri published plans to modernise its HIV-specific criminal law next year.

In Europe, Sweden abolished the legal requirement to disclose HIV status in March, the Spanish Supreme Court set an important precedent for HIV criminalisation cases in May, and in June, Scottish police ended the stigmatising practice of marking people living with HIV as ‘contagious’ in their database.

In Francophone Africa, HIV-specific criminal law reform in Benin and across the region is looking likely thanks to a recognition that existing laws do not reflect up-to-date science.

And in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, a process to completely abolish the draconian HIV-specific criminal law in Belarus has begun.

There is still so much more to do, however.  Despite these successes, as well as the many milestones the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE movement has achieved since its launch in 2016, we will not rest until everyone living with HIV in all their diversity is treated equally, fairly and justly by all actors of the criminal justice system.

UK: Police Federation working with the National AIDS Trust to tackle HIV stigma and misinformation

Busting the myths around HIV

The Federation is working with the National AIDS Trust to tackle the stigma of HIV and provide reassurance for colleagues around its transmission.

Over the decades, many officers have been spat at or bitten by individuals who ‘weaponise’ the virus by claiming to be infected. But the chances of acquiring HIV through spit or a bite are close to zero, and no police officer has ever acquired it in this way.

There are only three ways a person can be infected – needle sharing, sexual intercourse and breastfeeding.

PFEW National Board member Simon Kempton, who has led on the issue of communicable diseases, said: “The act of spitting at a police officer is vile, is disgusting and particularly during a global pandemic carries risks of transmitting other diseases. But we know from decades of research that it’s impossible to transmit HIV by that method, and people who threaten us with that only increase that feeling of fear and stigma.

“The Federation is keen to help colleagues understand the true risks of transmission, to help them deal with the fear factor that’s been built in unnecessarily. Knowledge IS power and helping officers to understand how negligible the risks are is important to their mental health after being assaulted.”

HIV if left untreated, attacks the immune system. However, if caught early and treated, it will not lead to AIDS which is the advanced stage. AIDS is now very uncommon in the UK thanks to effective treatment and people living with HIV can live full and productive lives with normal life expectancy.

Since HIV is now classed as a disability and a protected characteristic, it is not appropriate to record HIV status as a warning marker on police databases, except in situations like Custody where treatments might need to be administered.

DC Tracy O’Hara QPM of Merseyside Police explained: “These markers should only be on a custody record health assessment and even then, only available to those who need to know this information. So, if someone says, ‘I live with this condition and I need my medicine’ that should be on the record, but HIV status is not something the police service should be disclosing nor holding as warning markers or flags.

“It is important to note that we have colleagues living with HIV. How must they feel when we add to stigma or we store this information in such a negative way? They are never going to feel comfortable sharing their status to ensure their health is looked after. So this is not simply about our communities it is about our colleagues as well.”

More information is available at www.nat.org.uk

Look out for World AIDS Day on 1 December. This is an opportunity to show support for people living with HIV, and to remember those lost to the virus.

Watch all the videos of Beyond Blame @HIV2020 – our “perfectly executed…deftly curated, deeply informative” webshow

Earlier this month, advocates from all over the world came together for two hours to discuss the successes and challenges of the global movement to end HIV criminalisation.

All of the recordings of Beyond Blame: Challenging HIV Criminalisation for HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE are now available on the HIV Justice Network’s YouTube Channel.

“HUGE pleasure 2B at #BeyondBlame2020 conference – deftly curated, deeply informative; speakers were great; the passion & commitment to #HIVjustice was palpable. Much progress yet a sober reminder that the work is far from over.”

Kene Esom, Policy Specialist: Human Rights, Law and Gender, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

 

The full-length director’s cut version – with enhanced audio and video – is now available in English as well as with the audio track of the recorded simultaneous translation in French, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.

The English version is also available as a YouTube playlist in ‘bite-size’ chunks, with each segment of the webshow available as standalone videos.  This means, for example, if you just want to watch (or share) the segment on ‘women challenging HIV criminalisation in Africa‘, or on ‘bringing science to justice, and justice to science‘, it’s now possible.

“That webinar was perfectly executed. Great sound, engaging transitions (they actually played people on and off!), and multiple speakers in various collections. Having ALL OF THEM back at the end showed the breadth of this technical accomplishment and the depth of the speakers’ field of expertise. Not everyone may notice these things but boy, I sure do, and it was totally pro. I’ve seen big name conferences who couldn’t get this right… Congratulations all around, and especially to [director] Nicholas Feustel.

Mark S King, My Fabulous Disease

 

We have also made available for the first time the standalone recording of Edwin Cameron’s closing speech, which inspired so many.  The transcript is included in full below.

“We have been being battling this fight for many years. Since the start of the HIV epidemic we as gay men, as gay women, as queers, as transgender people, as sex workers, as people using drugs, have been persecuted by the criminal law. And I’m here to say, “Enough! Enough!

We have achieved a great deal with our movement, with the HIV Justice Network. We have achieved a great deal in conscientizing law makers, law givers and the public. It is now time for us to join in unison to demand the end of these stigmatising, retrograde, unproductive, hurtful, harmful laws.

It is a long struggle we’ve engaged in. And it’s one that has hurt many of us. Some of us here today, some of us listening in, some of us who have spoken, have felt the most brutal brush of the law. They have been imprisoned, unjustly prosecuted, unjustly convicted, and unjustly sent away.

HIV is not a crime. But there is more to it. Criminalising HIV, criminalising the transmission or exposure of HIV, as many countries on my own beautiful continent Africa do, is not just stupid and retrograde. It impedes the most important message of the HIV epidemic now, which is that this epidemic is manageable. I’ve been on antiretroviral treatment now for very nearly 23 years. My viral load has been undetectable for more than 20.

We can beat this, but we have to approach this issue as public health issue. We have to approach it rationally and sensibly, and without stigma, and without targeting people, and without seeking to hurt and marginalise people.We’ve made calamitous mistakes with the misapplication of the criminal law over the last hundred years, in the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We continue to make a calamitous mistake in Africa and elsewhere by misusing the criminal law against queer people like myself. We make a huge mistake by misusing the criminal law against people with HIV.

Let us rise today and say, “Enough!”

 

UK: Scotland Police ends practice of marking people with HIV as ‘contagious’ in intelligence database

Police Scotland to stop recording HIV status in database

Police Scotland has said it will stop marking people with HIV as “contagious” in their intelligence database after reviewing the procedure.

A charity uncovered the practice and raised concerns that it could lead to discrimination.

HIV Scotland said the change was “welcome news”, but that “questions still remain”.

Police Scotland said it had amended its policy, and that HIV status would be removed and no longer logged.

The practice was uncovered after HIV Scotland wrote to the force asking if they held information on a person’s HIV status, and if the information was stored under an “infectious” marker.

The police responded that the “contagious” marker was applied to anyone who they had received relevant intelligence about.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Speirs wrote that “having identified this practice, and in line with current policy on the Criminal History System (CHS) and the Police National Computer (PNC) where HIV is not recorded, I have instructed that this is immediately reviewed”.

In a later letter, police confirmed that following a review it had amended its practice and policy and now “no longer records HIV status on SID (Scottish Intelligence Database) within the contagious indicator field.”

About 97% of those living with HIV in Scotland are on effective treatment and therefore have an undetectable viral load, which means they cannot pass HIV on to others.

‘Not contagious’

HIV Scotland’s chief executive Nathan Sparling said: “Clearly this is welcome news from Police Scotland, but questions still remain.

“Will they review activity that has led to people living with HIV being targeted or discriminated against because of their HIV status? What training has been provided to officers from constable to higher ranks to ensure that any knowledge intelligence – information that is known to officers but not stored in SID – is not used to discriminate against people?

“They have identified that GDPR regulations place a greater emphasis on the retention of information, and places the burden on organisations to justify why information is being retained – so can they clarify why the information was retained in the first place, and if not will they refer themselves to the Information Commissioner’s Office?

Mr Sparling added that the charity had only learned of this practice by chance, but said it was a “systematic issue that could have impacted the lives of people living with HIV”.

‘Essential resource’

He added: “We hope that this action will have a positive impact and shows the public that people living with HIV are not contagious.

“The modern reality is that many people living with HIV are on treatment so effective it reduces levels of the virus to a level that is undetectable in the blood, they can’t pass it on to their sexual partners and significantly reduces the risk of transmission through other routes.”

ACC Speirs said: “A recent review of the Scottish Intelligence Database has resulted in Police Scotland amending its practice and policy. We no longer log HIV status as a contagious indicator and existing indicators which detailed HIV status will be removed.

“SID is an essential resource that allows police officers to carry out their role safely and effectively. We regularly review intelligence that is retained to make sure it is appropriate and complies with data laws. Further reviews will be carried out to specifically ensure compliance with this amended policy.”

HIV criminalisation still an issue during COVID-19 pandemic

On 21 February, just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we celebrated a week where – for the first time in years – we saw no reported cases of HIV criminalisation anywhere in the world.

Soon after we began to notice fewer reports of HIV criminalisation cases and fewer articles related to our collective advocacy.  We wondered at the time whether this may be due, in part, to our previous advocacy successes, athough we thought it was more likely a reflection of the media and the criminal justice system changing their focus to COVID-19.

Certainly, police have been unbelievably busy dealing with ensuring lockdowns and quarantines are followed – some more zealously than others – and courts, as well as parliaments are either closed or dealing only with the most urgent of cases. This is having a concerning impact upon the processing of HIV criminalisation cases, including appeals, leaving those unjustly accused or convicted in limbo and at greater risk of acquiring COVID-19 whilst on remand or in prison.

Now, after several weeks of seeing no HIV-related criminal cases, this past week we have, unfortunately, documented two further HIV-related arrests – a woman in the Rostov region of Russia is accused of passing on HIV to her husband and faces five years in prison; and a man in Louisiana in the United States was arrested after allegedly spitting on an officer and then charged with “intentional exposure to the AIDS virus” after he informed medical staff of his HIV-positive status.

The US news report notes – without obvious irony – the Kafkaesque nature of the law in Louisiana by concluding:

While saliva alone cannot transmit HIV or AIDS, Louisiana law holds that knowingly infected people who spit at first responders can face up to 11 years in prison and/or pay a $6,000 fine.

 

This week, we also saw a remarkably comprehensive article about HIV criminalisation in Tajikistan, which explored how and why the country’s criminal code potentially considers every HIV-positive citizen to be a criminal, what this means for people living with HIV in the country, and how to avoid prosecution as well as ways to organise.

Finally, some good news relating to HIV criminalisation as well as to COVID-19 criminalisation.

In Spain, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of a man accused of criminal HIV transmission noting that evidence pointed to the complainant being aware of his status prior to agreeing to condomless sex, meaning there was consent. 

And in Malta, where it was proposed earlier in the week to add COVID-19 to the list of communicable diseases covered by the law used to criminalise the wilful or negligent spread of HIV and hepatitis, this proposal has since been put on hold, due to very real concerns that this may do more harm than good for public health, as well as create difficulties around proof in court.

The Times of Malta reports:

The law could also strain the already stretched law enforcement resources if they suddenly had to deal with a flood of reports over possible criminal spreading of the virus.

“In essence, this seems like a good idea at first glance but it presents a number of problems,” one government minister privy to the discussions said.

The possibility of such a reform had not even been brought before Cabinet yet, he said, adding he understood it “has been put on the back burner for now”. 

“We have bigger fish to fry, right now.”

 

If only other punitive-minded governments – and overly-zealous law enforcement officers – around the world thought this way about COVID-19 and other communicable diseases right now, including, of course, HIV.

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.   

Australia: Prisoners who assault prison officers would be mandatorily tested for infectious diseases under proposed law in Western Australia

Proposed mandatory infectious diseases testing of prisoners who assault officers
  • ​New laws to make compulsory the testing of a prisoner accused of assault for an infectious disease
  • Current laws mean an officer has to wait three months to know if they are possibly infected
  • Prisoner’s blood-virus infection status would be made available to an affected officer

Prisoners who assault prison officers would be mandatorily tested for infectious diseases under proposed new laws now before Western Australia’s Parliament.

Currently prison officers, who have been assaulted by a prisoner, have to wait three months before they themselves are tested to see if they have contracted an infectious disease such as Hepatitis C or HIV.

The new laws mean a prisoner would be tested as soon as possible and face an increased penalty of $3,000, up from $300, or an extra six months on top of their existing sentence for refusing to comply.

The tough new penalty and mandatory testing is to try to alleviate the burden on an officer who now has to wait three months before they know if they have possibly been infected.

The new laws also cover if an officer has come in contact with a prisoner’s bodily fluids.

The amendment Bill will also authorise the disclosure of the prisoner’s infection status to the affected prison officer. Where the prisoner’s infectious disease status is known, the information will be able to be shared with the affected prison officer almost immediately.

The provisions contained in the legislation mirror the protection offered to WA police officers.

Comments attributed to Corrective Services Minister Francis Logan:

“These tough new amendments fulfil a McGowan Labor Government commitment to support prison officers in the same way as police officers.

“Prison officers are required, as part of their duties, to restrain people and are therefore exposed to bodily fluids through which diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV can be transmitted.

“It can be a long and anxious wait for an officer not knowing whether the prisoner is carrying an infectious disease.

“Under these tough new laws, the burden will be lifted on a prison officer and a prisoner will be mandatorily tested and failure to comply may result in a $3,000 fine and six months on top of their existing sentence.

“Our prisoner officers work in highly challenging and complex environments and this proposed new law takes the burden off them and offers some sense of surety.”

South Africa: Former Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron talks about his life, HIV and the Law

Judge Edwin Cameron on HIV, justice and attacks on the judiciary

Former Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, whether intentionally or not, has always been an activist. He talks to Manosa Nthunya about his writing life.

In South Africa, we are increasingly becoming accustomed to the fact that from time to time a judge, particularly from the Constitutional Court, will, to our delight, pen a book.

Since our transition into democracy, some of the judges who have written books, mostly memoirs, include Albie Sachs, Dikgang Moseneke and Edwin Cameron.

All their books are reflections on the law and its role in our nascent democracy.

Because of our history, these memoirs are reflections of the role the law has played in the individual lives of these judges growing up under apartheid.

It is in this way that for us as readers the law comes alive, as it is presented as not only an abstract entity but something that always has a profound effect on lives.

Judge Cameron, who retired from his position as Constitutional Court justice last year, has written two personal memoirs which have both received acclaim.

His first memoir, Witness to Aids, was published in 2005 and his second, Justice: A Personal Account, in 2014.

Both books chronicle his life, beginning under apartheid and into post-apartheid, and interrogate what the law means in the context of a society where it was used to catastrophic ends.

When I met Cameron to discuss his writing life, I was most interested in what it was that compelled him to write, particularly because there seems to be an expectation in our society that the less it is known about a judges’ life and thinking, the better we can trust in the independence and fairness of their judgments.

When I ask him why it is that he writes, he responds that with his first book his reasons were to “make a point about white privilege, about homosexuality and about HIV”.

With his second book, “my aim was to show the law as an oppressor, as the imprisoner of my father, as something that should be applied to social justice ends”.

Witness to Aids is a book, as the title suggests, that looks at the impact that HIV/Aids has had in South Africa.

It’s a book that tells the story of the disease from a deeply personal perspective.

INFECTED WITH THE VIRUS

Cameron writes in the introduction: “I knew that I had Aids when I could no longer climb the stairs from the judges’ common room in the high court to my chambers, two floors above.”

He goes on to tell his story of being infected with HIV and how that dramatically changed his life.

Having been infected with the virus during the heady days of apartheid, Cameron’s book explores the shame that was – and still is – attached to the virus and how this was exacerbated by his sexuality.

This is an experience, he tells me, that has greatly shaped him.

Even though Cameron’s career as a lawyer and eventually a judge was taking off, he writes that having HIV was a huge blow to how he thought his life would turn out as “the other part of my life was washing away beneath my feet, eroded by microbes and attacked by fungi coursing through my veins and wasting my muscles and bodily reserves, leaving me tired and panicked and isolated in the waiting room”.

Having heard people say that they would kill themselves if they found out they were HIV-positive, he found that he “wanted to keep on living. I wanted my health back, urgently. I wanted to breathe easily, freely, again.”

While Witness to Aids is about Cameron’s battle with the disease, it is also a story about the tragic politics of HIV/Aids in South Africa.

He tells me that this was a very difficult book for him to write: “The first book was agony. Every word was anguish. Writing about stigma, infection, recovering from it.

“Writing about the horror of [former president] Thabo Mbeki’s denialism was very painful. I was under attack by a man named Ronald Suresh Roberts, who should remain nameless.”

And the book does – more so than any popular book I can think of – go into detail about the consequences of Aids denialism in South Africa. What created this, he writes in the book, was “the inauguration of Mbeki’s Aids Advisory Panel in 2000”, which “initiated three years of tragic confusion in South African governmental approaches to Aids”.

This is partly why Cameron became an activist for issues related to HIV/Aids.

Rereading the book now, one realises how far we have come as a country with regard to the disease and the despair that was ever-present at that time.

Some of the most moving words that speak to this despair are when Cameron writes: “We cannot allow our grief and our bereavement to inflict a further loss upon us – the loss of our own full humanity, our capacity to feel and respond and support. We must incorporate our grief into our everyday living by turning it into energy for living, by exerting ourselves as never before.”

What made it possible to challenge government was a ruling by the Constitutional Court that the state was compelled to offer antiretrovirals.

In many ways, the story of HIV/Aids in South Africa is a story which, although tragic, bears witness to the importance and strength of living in a constitutional democracy.

It is testament to what is possible when a country has an independent judiciary and a government that respects the judgments of the courts – as was the case, as Cameron writes, under Mbeki’s presidency.

It is in Cameron’s second book that the importance of a constitutional democracy is interrogated more deeply.

In the context of South Africa this is not an easy examination, as the courts have more often than some would wish come under heavy criticism from politicians and, of late, the public through social media.

Cameron writes that the book is about “our country’s most inspiring and hopeful feature – its big-spirited, visionary Constitution. And it tells the story of my journey from poverty-stricken childhood to becoming a lawyer and eventually a justice in the country’s highest court, which has the duty to interpret and guard that Constitution.”

I put it to him that what struck me while rereading his book was how he seemed to have written a biography of the law.

The ways in which the law, like a human being, is under constant change and how in that consistent metamorphosis it can be perceived as either nefarious or necessary.

Thus, even though the story of apartheid that he tells in the book is one about the tragic uses of the law, there is also a sense that the law is not something stable and fixed, that it depends on who is making use of it.

In the book he writes: “What fascinated me was that the law, apartheid’s oppressive instrument, could also be employed against apartheid. It could be used occasionally to mitigate its effects. Properly employed, it could be used to repair and not to break down or damage.”

What Cameron provides here is a picture of the law that is very much with us in post-apartheid South Africa.

Even though the sense, for most, is that the law should be used to respond adequately to our history, there are also those who are intent on abusing it to further their ambitions.

What this reveals to us as the public is that the law is, in fact, a fragile entity, solely reliant on the motives of those who are in control of it.

In Justice: A Personal Account, we are taken into Cameron’s childhood in an orphanage and how he became interested in law.

Even though he grew up poor in apartheid South Africa, he was nevertheless acutely aware of the fact that being white meant that he had privileges which other racial groups could not have.

“My whiteness bought me the privileges that apartheid was designed to secure for whites. It secured for me access to a first-rate high school and an excellent university. These opened the way for me to get a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and to start my legal career,” Cameron writes.

It is precisely these privileges which he believes South Africa’s democratic Constitution is called on to address, about which he writes: “Our Constitution seeks to offer this generosity and support justly to all. It gives us a framework for a society in which mutual support and generosity are key. And it obliges government, on behalf of all of us, to create a society in which all of us can live in dignity.”

ATTACKS ON THE JUDICIARY

I find it unavoidable to ask him about his reflections on the latest, as we are told, “attacks” the judiciary.

What does he make of them and are they justified?

He responds saying that precisely because South Africa’s transition was legal-centric, it is unavoidable that the judiciary will, from time to time, receive criticism.

At the time he wrote his second book, he says, “the Constitution was under credible and warranted scrutiny”.

What he was saying in the book was that, despite the criticisms the Constitution has received, it has survived, revealing its strength.

Recently, “the particular criticism has come from the EFF, when they got a number of judgments which were adverse to them and [Mbuyiseni] Ndlozi made personal comments about the judge and he referred to the two judges’ genders”, something which Cameron says he found worrying. This was a consequence of a judgment that involved Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, where the majority of judges found that she had been dishonest and legally incompetent.

Cameron tells me that, despite the fact that the Constitution has shown its resilience, there was a time in our recent history when our democracy was under threat.

He says it was with the help of the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela that we survived.

“If I had to nominate two people that have saved our democracy I would nominate Mogoeng and Madonsela. They have played pivotal roles in salvaging democracy from total ruin.”

I ask what advice he would give to young authors, be it in law or otherwise.

“It starts with a message. In Witness to Aids I was trying to talk about how HIV is a manageable but highly stigmatised disease. In Justice: A Personal Account it was [about] a Constitution under threat. For me it starts with a message and the rest flows from that.”

And when I ask what it is that keeps him going, Cameron says: “The young law students are the reason to keep going. Outstanding young South Africans who have a sense of vision about what the law can do and about how the courts should operate. It’s the reason to keep going and not to fall into some kind of pessimism or despair.”

Nthunya is a PhD candidate in literature at Wits University. He studied literature, history and philosophy at Rhodes University