Stop Using Laws as Weapons Against HIV Prevention

Every day regressive laws and state practices are used as weapons against the groups most vulnerable to HIV within societies across the world.

My colleague Heather Doyle recently blogged about the devastating murder of leading gay activist David Kato in Kampala, Uganda. David lived as an outspoken critique of the existing penalty of life imprisonment that gay people face in Uganda and the infamous “anti-gay” bill still before the Ugandan parliament, which threatens to introduce the death penalty for same-sex behavior where the “offender” is HIV-positive.

In Russia, the number of people newly infected with HIV continues to rise drastically as government officials actively prevent the distribution of clean needles and methadone, despite overwhelming international evidence that shows such interventions prevent HIV and save lives (read Maria Golovanevskaya's post on this topic).

In Macedonia, under the cloak of the country’s criminal code, police have arrested a large number of street-based sex workers, forced them to undergo testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and then shamefully released the results to the media and the public. Sex workers spoke out about this in a video supported by the Open Society Foundations.

These stories stand beside countless others as testament that what is written in the statute books, and what is done by governments and others in the name of the law, can significantly increase the vulnerability of groups that are already at a high risk of HIV and other serious diseases. This week in Bangkok, Thailand, civil society groups that represent sex workers, drug users, men who have sex with men, people living with HIV, women and children, and those seeking access to essential medicines, will sit down with government officials and policymakers from across the Asia-Pacific region to share their experiences of how the law affects their daily lives.

The two-day meeting will be the first of a number of regional dialogues taking place this year as part of the UNAIDS/UNDP Global Commission on HIV & the Law, an initiative that is being supported by the Open Society Public Health Program. Starting in July last year and running until the end of 2011, the Global Commission through regional dialogues and advice from technical experts will seek to understand how laws and government policies and practices affect country-level HIV epidemics.

At the end of the process, the Commissioners (among which include the former presidents of Brazil and Botswana, former and current constitutional and high court judges from Australia and South Africa, and a member of the U.S. Congress) will deliver recommendations to UN member countries on how the law and state practice should be used to protect and promote the human rights of people living with and most vulnerable to HIV.

In order for the Commission to achieve this goal, it is vital that local and grassroots HIV and human rights organizations, and the individuals that they represent, speak up and tell their story. The Open Society Foundations will be working with our grantees and partners to make sure that the Commission, and consequently governments across the world, truly listen and understand the simple and clear message. Our laws should no longer be used weapons, but as tools for social change.

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