Jamra primary scholl for children affected by HIV/AIDS, drugs or poverty, Senegal (c) Nell Freeman/Alliance Participants in the Photovioce project, Ecuador © Marcela Nievas for the Alliance
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Commonwealth must address laws that stifle AIDS response


NAIROBI KENYA - Members of GALCK pose using the words they want to say to conceal or reveal their identity to a level that they fell comfortable with.  © Nell Freeman for the Alliance

For many people living with HIV, punitive laws for sex work or sodomy offences make it impossible for them to access HIV services. As Ministers gather in New York this month to agree how the Commonwealth must reform, the Alliance’s ‘What’s preventing prevention?’ campaign reasserts its appeal for Commonwealth countries to repeal laws that impede effective responses to HIV.

Commonwealth countries are home to 60% of the 34 million people living with HIV. However, many retain outdated and unjust laws that prevent quick and easy access to HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and care services.  For example, in 41 of the 54 Commonwealth countries homosexuality is still a criminal offence.  In others, people who use drugs face the death penalty and sex workers are subject to severe penalties.

The role of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Ministers of Foreign Affairs annual meeting takes place in New York on 29 September.  They are due to consider the final 44 recommendations of the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) that were not passed at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth in October 2011.

Enrique Restoy, Alliance Campaign Manager said “We are extremely concerned that Ministers are dragging their heels again on the issue of law reform.  It’s possible the previous recommendation by Commonwealth leaders for legal reform that allows for a better response to HIV may be further delayed or even dismissed altogether.”

A Ministerial Task Force which was created to develop the outstanding recommendations will put forward most of the EPG recommendations for approval by Ministers in September.  However, they have requested ‘further guidance’ on the specific recommendation that Commonwealth countries “should take steps to repeal discriminatory laws that may impede their HIV responses”. This is despite the recent and highly significant report by the independent Global Commission on HIV and the Law that urgently called for “laws that protect human rights to save lives, save money and end the epidemic.”

Restoy continued, “Despite its low profile, the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs meeting is key to ensuring that a reformed Commonwealth prioritises tackling the HIV and AIDS epidemics. If we miss this opportunity, the reform process will continue without law reform being addressed.  Millions of lives are at stake.”

Impact on people living with HIV

Although there is still no cure for HIV, lives can be saved through access to HIV treatments.  As we reported in The Loop last month, despite excitement around new scientific advances the fact remains that the majority of people who need treatment are not receiving it because the legal environments in which they live do not enable effective HIV responses.

In the12 Commonwealth countries where the Alliance works, we see firsthand the difference that punitive laws, and law enforcement practices, can make to people living with and most at risk of HIV. For example:

  • In Uganda, the extent of state-led homophobia was evident in the now infamous ‘anti-homosexuality bill’ which threatens to introduce even tougher penalties for consensual same-sex contact between adults.  Thankfully, the bill is unlikely to be passed (see report by Key Correspondent James Kityo) but the legal penalty remains life imprisonment, and the homophobia that has been stirred up by the bill creates on-going challenges for civil society organisations like Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) who are implementing HIV prevention services.
  • Malaysia retains the death penalty for drug offences (usually restricted to trafficking cases).  Other penalties for people who use drugs can be severe and disproportionate to the crimes involved.  Police often target harm reduction services, seeing easy opportunities to harass, entrap and extort clients.  This drives people away from these services.  Alliance Linking Organisation, The Malaysian AIDS Council, is working with the state authorities to improve access to HIV and harm reduction programmes, in spite of the challenging drug control legislation.

The current Alliance strategy has human rights as one of this three main aims.  Over the last year, we have been working in partnership with UNAIDS to help national governments to translate human rights approaches into national AIDS programmes. A report on this work will be launched shortly.

Our What’s Preventing Prevention? campaign

In 2010, the Alliance produced a report, Enabling legal environments for effective HIV responses, which aimed to define an agenda for action on HIV and the law in Commonwealth states.  This was followed by a campaign action in 2011 which resulted in over 75,000 petition letters to heads of governments and ministries of foreign affairs, putting unprecedented pressure on the Commonwealth and its institutions to make legal reforms for a better response to HIV.

Today, the Alliance is reasserting its campaign call to demand that discriminatory laws in Commonwealth countries must be changed. We are urging Commonwealth Ministers to accept that a human rights approach must be the foundation of the HIV response.

Enrique Restoy said “Now is the time for national laws in Commonwealth countries to change to protect key populations such as people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers from human rights violations, stigma and discrimination and facilitate their access to HIV treatment, prevention and care.”

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