Vienna 2010: Human rights, law and HIV

Countries without laws to protect sex workers, drug users and men who have sex with men only provide a fraction of the population with access to prevention. On the other hand, countries with legal protection and the protection of human rights for these people offer greater access to services. As a result, there are fewer infections, less demand for antiretroviral treatment and fewer deaths.

In light of this, the Global Commission on HIV and Law was officially launched on June 24, 2010 by Helen Clark, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Michel Sidibe, Executive Director, The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

The Commission’s goal is to develop actionable, evidence informed and human rights-based recommendations to enable effective HIV responses and realize the human rights of people living and most vulnerable to HIV.

The Commission will submit its report in December 2011. It will pick up the most challenging legal and human rights issues in the context of HIV, including criminalization of HIV transmission and behaviours and practices such as drug use, sex work and same sex relations.

In India, the 2009 Delhi High Court ruling striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, ‘to decriminalize same sex relations between consenting adults’, could be showcased at the Global Commission on HIV and Law.

“Striking down of Section 377 has been a very important step in this direction and has generated a lot of expectations and excitement among the people who are either affected by HIV or those with different sexual preferences,'' said Mr J.V.R. Prasada Rao, member secretary of the Commission. Mr. Rao, former Union Health Secretary in India, is at present Special Adviser to the Executive Director of the UNAIDS for the Asia-Pacific region.

The following issues are critical to a human rights approach to HIV/AIDS:-

The rights of women and girls, including their right to equality under the law; protection from violence; equal access to property and inheritance; and access to education, information, and a full range of HIV/AIDS and reproductive health services.

The rights of people who use drugs, including freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture, incarceration for low-level offences, and other abuses in the criminal justice system; access to harm reduction services such as needle exchange and substitution treatment; and equal access to antiretroviral treatment for HIV.

The rights of prisoners, including humane conditions of confinement; access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services; freedom from arbitrarily prolonged incarceration; access to medical release; and equal treatment for prisoners living with HIV.

The rights of sex workers, men who have sex with men, and other marginalized groups, including freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention for violating laws against prostitution and sodomy; protection from rape and other forms of violence; and equality in access to health care, employment, and other services.

The rights of children affected by AIDS, including protection from abandonment, sexual violence, property grabbing, and other abuses; equal access to primary, secondary, and tertiary education; and access to a full range of HIV services, including complete HIV-prevention information and antiretroviral treatment for HIV.

The rights of youth, including complete and science-based HIV-prevention information; comprehensive adolescent sexual and reproductive rights services; and meaningful involvement in the formulation of HIV policies and programs.

The right to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care, including lifting all barriers to access to prevention, treatment, and care programs such as censorship of HIV-prevention information, legal restrictions on harm reduction services for people who use drugs, excessive patent protection on HIV drugs, and restrictions on opioid pain medication for palliative care.

The XVIII International AIDS Conference takes place at a critical time, given the 2010 deadline for universal access set by world leaders. AIDS 2010 will coincide with a major push for expanded access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The theme for AIDS 2010 'Rights Here, Right Now' – emphasizes the central importance of protecting and promoting human rights as a prerequisite to a successful response to HIV.

This theme underscores the need for governments to recognize and address the fact that discrimination, abuses against and criminalization of key population groups – particularly people living with HIV; people who use drugs; female, male and transgender sex workers; sexual minorities, including men who have sex with men and transgender people – continue to fuel the epidemic and hinder efforts to achieve universal access.

Ishdeep Kohli-CNS