Thu Apr 30th, 2009 at 06:58:53 AM EST
Past weekend, I attended Africa Day, organised by the Evert Vermeer Stichting - which is an organisation affiliated to the Dutch Labour party. Prominent speakers were the minister of Humanitarian Development, Bert Koenders (Labour), and Paul Rusesabagina, whose story during the Rwandan genocide was made into the movie "Hotel Rwanda".
There were plenty workshops and events to choose from, and as I felt no need to attend such workshops as "Who is Zuma?" I ended up on a subject I knew little about, but whose attendees were remarkably ardent against the subject: the creep of criminalisation of HIV patients. This is a recent development not just in Africa and Asia, but also, surprisingly, in Europe.
The two most vociferous speakers, one from ICSS, International Civil Society Support, another from GNP+, the Global Network of People Living with HIV/Aids, too most of the time. Thijs Berman, Labour MEP and campaign leader for the European elections, was the third panellist. Although Berman's portfolio is more directed to humanitarian development, he attended with the goal to explain what the European Parliament could do.
Several not-so hypothetical cases were brought to the fore. From Texas, USA: A man, who knows he is HIV-positive, spits at a police officer during his arrest. Should he be put in jail? (The judge said yes, and jailed him for 35 years.)
A woman, told by her doctor she has AIDS, breast-feeds her newly born - who gets HIV as result. Should she be convicted for harming her child? (She was.)
The arguments why countries were resorting to the criminalisation of HIV were convincing: people are compelled to stop HIV/AIDS by all means necessary, and by making HIV transmission a criminal act it may be an aid in reducing the spread of HIV. Particularly in Africa the use of HIV criminalisation has blossomed across the continent.
However compelling, both GNP+ and ICSS (and also UNAIDS) argue that, however understandable, the effects of criminalisation are actually counterproductive and harmful to the cause of AIDS reduction. They frustrate health care by a climate of fear and retribution, they increase discrimination towards HIV/AIDS patients, threatens transparency and, ultimately, undo prevention efforts.
For GNP+ and ICSS another sign on the wall is that judges in South Africa, which currently holds world's largest group of HIV/AIDS patients, have fiercely rejected criminalisation of HIV.
Tragically, it is stigma that lies primarily behind the drive to criminalisation. It is stigma, rooted in the moralism that arises from sexual transmission of HIV, that too often provides the main impulse behind the enactment of these laws.
Even more tragically, such laws and prosecutions in turn only add fuel to the fires of stigma. Prosecutions for HIV transmission and exposure, and the chilling content of the enactments themselves, reinforce the idea of HIV as a shameful, disgraceful, unworthy condition.
- Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeal, SA, 2008
Yet surprisingly, European countries are not scat-free.
GNP+ has just started a worldwide scan, the Global Criminalisation Scan, on the status of the prosecution and convictions of HIV related cases, available here.
Data on European countries is already available, although still under development, and can be found here.
One striking aspect was the variety in law in EU countries. Another the slow spread of criminalisation towards eastern European countries. Whereas the rate of prosecutions and convictions has slowed in, for example, the Netherlands and Switzerland, in the UK the rate has trebled since 2004:
The Global Criminalisation Scan - United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland
[I]t appears there have been a trebling of prosecutions since this scan was done in 2004. This increase in activity from the Crown Prosecution Agency (CPS) is far removed from the situation in 1993 when the CPS was said to be `powerless to act' when an attempt was made to prosecute a male haemophiliac who was accused of infecting four women. Until 2004, all those convicted were male and prosecutions were based on transmission during heterosexual sex. Since then, two women have been convicted and three men prosecuted for transmission through homosexual sex. To date, there have been thirteen prosecutions in England and Wales for reckless transmission and 3 in Scotland. Of the sixteen prosecuted, there were fourteen male and two female. Out of the sixteen convicted (sic), 13 were convicted.
Spain was lauded, so far, as one of Europe's shining beacons when it came to specific criminalisation laws: there aren't any, apparently. Which is what both GNP+ and ICSS were arguing for: the already existing legal framework is sufficient to cover all cases of malevolent transmission of HIV/AIDS, and an additional, HIV specific law is unnecessary. Whether Spain is laudable because of omission or by choice was left in the middle.
Many remaining issues were left unaddressed due to time constraints, particularly what to do in those cultures where the dominant culture is misogynist, which strikes me as one of the more challenging problems. So the session ended slightly on a single issue: decriminalise, decriminalise, decriminalise! I guess that's what GNP+ and ICSS are pushing for, and they do it with fervour, but it even left Thijs Berman somewhat flustered, as he expressed more a generalist, global scope. There were only crumbs for him left to explain what the European Parliament could do in practice (launching a survey for EU countries, focus on health care in developing countries).