HIV is not a crime: End criminalization and respect human rights

Dispatches from the International AIDS Conference

[Ed. Note — Contributor Michael Harney is writing to us from the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. This is his third contribution from the conference this week. Follow other updates from Harney here.]

MELBOURNE, Australia — All this week at the XX International AIDS Conference one after another presenter has emphasized the need to reduce HIV transmission by decriminalizing an array of behaviors and the people who practice them.

Sex workers around the world — female, male, or transgender — are at increased risk of getting HIV when repressive penal codes scare them underground and drive them away from HIV testing, counseling and other healthcare services.

The Lancet in its July 2014 issue specifically addresses HIV and sex workers, and the scientific evidence supporting the need to decriminalize sex work and  bring it into the modern era with occupational safety and health standards.

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Intolerance of same sex relationships — men who have sex with men, or women who have sex with women — promotes violence, humiliation and harsh punishments, sometimes even death penalties in at least 76 countries, according to Glenn–Milo Santos, assistant professor at University of California San Francisco and researcher at the San Francisco Public Health Department.

The U.S. is not without criticism. In fact, our country is a world leader in the number of people incarcerated for drug possession and use, sex work or not disclosing HIV status to a sexual partner. Some arrests have even been made when a condom was used or anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment has achieved undetectable levels of HIV and no infection resulted.

Take the case of Nick Rhodes in Iowa, who was accused of exposing his sex partner to HIV, resulting in a 25-year prison sentence though the partner remained negative. Nick’s story is explained in the short film “HIV Is Not a Crime” by Sean Strub, long-time activist and person living with HIV whose website is seroproject.com and whose participation at this conference has been an extra special benefit.

Or, watch “HIV Criminalization Face-Off” by Mark King, who blogs at MyFabulousDisease.com and see him debate with his alter-ego about the pros and cons of disclosure.

The Hon. Michael Kirby, former justice of the High Court of Australia, known to be an outspoken (and out) advocate of human rights especially in the area of HIV and the law, reminded us of the hate crimes committed against gay men such as Dwayne Jones of Jamaica, David Kato of Uganda and Eric Lembembe of Cameroon — just to name a few — who were brutally murdered simply for being gay or hetero-non-conforming.

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Women of all ages are being marginalized and made vulnerable to gender-based violence by ideologies and practices that promote gender inequalities. Some HIV positive women have experienced forced or coerced sterilization. Breakthrough, a human rights organization to prevent violence against women and girls by “transforming the norms and cultures that enable it,” and programs such as Useful To Albanian Women (UAW), and the Namibian Women’s Health Network strive to protect women and change the attitudes of men.

A major theme of AIDS 2014 is that stigma must end if we are ever to live together in this world. Antiquated laws must be stricken from the books, and newly imposed restrictions in Russia, parts of Africa, the Middle East, and even the increase in penalties for prostitution in North Carolina must be challenged as unscientific and unjust.

“We must expose and denounce intolerance of human rights everywhere,” stated Kate Gilmore of UNAIDS.

The UNAIDS Guidance Note of 2013 seeks to reconcile science and the law, on the basis that people around the world have more than enough to deal with given the high risk of HIV, health, and economic disparities; and that the time is now to Step Up the Pace of ending criminalization, stigma, and discrimination.

Follow the conference at aids2014.org.

[Ed. Note — The original version of this article incorrectly identified the website of writer and activist Sean Strug. The Sero Project can be found at seroproject.com.]

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Posted by Michael Harney

Michael Harney is an educator with WNCAP (Western North Carolina AIDS Project), an HIV/AIDS advocate and supporter of Needle Exchange programs. He occasionally contributes his writings on various subjects such as HIV/AIDS education and dispatches from the International AIDS Conference.