WAD 2012: We can´t stop HIV through the courts, we should leave the walk of shame behind us

Published 11/30/2012 | Updated 11/30/2012

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People living with HIV throughout Europe face stigma and discrimination enshrined in laws and judicial decisions. They are made criminals for acts that would not be 'crimes' if they did not have, or did not know they had, the virus. Such prosecutions not only do not help prevent new HIV infections, they can actually do more harm than good by transforming newly diagnosed individuals into a potential criminals adding further to HIV-related stigma and discrimination. “It’s a formidable task to make people aware of their rights let alone uphold them in face of intimidation” says Vicky Claeys, IPPF EN Regional Director.

The European institutions can help!

  • The Parliament can ask the Fundamental Rights Agency to fund a study on the human rights of people living with HIV.
  • The Commission can support projects bringing together prosecutors, lawyers, judges, people living with HIV, health providers.
  • The last decade has witnessed a rapid increase of criminal prosecutions for alleged HIV non-disclosure, potential or perceived exposure, or non-intentional transmission.

At least 17 European countries have used general laws to prosecute people living with HIV and 9 others such as Malta and Romania have introduced HIV-specific laws. The Nordic countries along with Austria and Switzerland1 have some of the highest reported rates of prosecution of people living with HIV in the world.

“Although the use of the law in each country varies and rates of prosecution differ, common features are identifiable across Europe” says EATG member Edwin J. Bernard, coordinator of the HIV Justice Network. They include:

  • Singling out by prosecutors HIV sexual exposure/transmission over other communicable diseases and transmission routes.
  • Prosecutions for potentially exposing a person to HIV regardless of actual risk.
  • Poor levels of HIV knowledge in the police, justice systems, and media.
  • Disproportionate prosecution of vulnerable groups including migrants, people with mental health issues and sex workers.
  • Discriminatory and inaccurate media reporting. 
  • Overly harsh prison sentences. 
  • Poor access to justice or quality legal representation.

“These criminal cases are devastating people’s lives for having a virus and their impact reaches far beyond single cases. They contribute to spreading fear, stigma and misinformation about and among people living with HIV”, says Brian West, Chair of EATG.

“Public health concerns also argue against prosecutions”, adds Milena Stevanovic, physician and EATG member. “These cases make it more difficult for doctors to support their patients in disclosing their status to their partners. Moreover, the climate of fear these prosecutions create may delay persons from seeking a test and diagnosis thus contributing to late diagnosis and further transmissions. In fact, effective treatment reduces the transmission of HIV”.

However, there are positive signals emerging in countries like Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland as well as in the United Kingdom where advocates have developed approaches to challenge the misuse of the criminal justice system to control and punish people living with HIV.

“Sweden is one of the countries in the world that have the highest number of people living with HIV sentenced to prison”, says Maria Andersson, Executive Director of RFSU, IPPF Member Association in Sweden. “In the Nordic countries where we have access to HIV- information, testing and treatment we have a special responsibility to work against stigma and discrimination. Finally, after years of advocacy, politicians and prosecutors are starting to realize that we can´t stop HIV through the courts. We hope that we will soon be able to leave the walk of shame behind us.”

In Belgium, the anti-discrimination law covers health status, thus protecting people living with HIV. Yet, according to a recent survey in francophone Belgium, 85.6% of people living with HIV are not aware of this. Discrimination, stigma and criminalization often are driven by fear and a lack of information”, says Chris Lambrechts, Director of Sensoa, IPPF Member Association in Belgium. “There is a need for comprehensible, correct information on HIV transmission and living with HIV for the general public as well as for policymakers”.

Vicky Claeys, IPPF EN Regional Director, concludes: “An end to the global epidemic is within our reach! And getting there also depends on the European institutions commitment to ensure respect of human rights”.

Contact:
Irene Donadio,
IPPF EN Manager of Public Affairs at idonadio@ppfen.org
Ann Isabelle von Lingen
, EATG Policy Officer at annisabelle.vonlingen@eatg.org

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