Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Beyond Blame – Challenging HIV Criminalisation


Victorian Health Minister David Davis welcomes delegates to
the Beyond Blame preconference.
A promise to review HIV-related criminal laws in Victoria and reporting of amendments to overseas laws set an optimistic tone at the Beyond Blame: Challenging HIV Criminalisation pre-conference at AIDS 2014 - the largest criminalisation preconference held-to-date.

Held in Melbourne on 20 July, it included participants from a diverse array of countries, including the US, Canada, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Sweden, the UK and Australia.


The Victorian Health Minister Mark Davis, who welcomed participants to the meeting, made the historic announcement that his Government would amend s19A of the Victorian Crimes Act, which currently states that a person who 'intentionally causes another person to be infected with a serious disease is guilty of an indictable offence'.

'Serious disease' explicitly refers only to HIV. The Minister stated that his intention was to make the law non-discriminatory. Repeal of s19A would not mean an end to HIV-transmissions/exposure charges in Victoria, as presumably police/prosecutors will be able to bring such charges under general criminal laws. Nevertheless, this review was universally applauded as a step towards removing overt HIV-related legal discrimination.

Former High Court Justice, Michael Kirby warmly welcomed the announcement by the Minister. Kirby also considered other aspects of HIV criminalisation. Particularly, he referred to the attitude among some in the gay community who maintain that HIV-positive people who transmit HIV deserve to be punished, as this thinking underpins the actions of some people who press charges. Kirby encouraged the audience to focus on this area of work.

We then headed overseas with American Sean Strub from the Seroproject, describing how HIV-specific criminal laws in the state of Iowa were recently repealed. Strub presented with Nick Rhoades, a gay man convicted under the old Iowan laws who has since had his prison sentence/conviction suspended. They highlighted the key role that a state Senator, Matt McCoy, had played in creating the political support needed to repeal the law.

Sharna Quigley from QPP. The slide says it all.
This brought home to me how crucial it is to build strong political support in these issues of contentious law reform.

This is particularly applicable to advocacy for reform of laws criminalising HIV transmission/exposure, drug use and sex work, as the general population is unlikely to embrace reform due to stigma and prejudice.

We then shifted south to Uganda, with Dora Musinguzi presenting on the moral panic that has ensued in her country following allegations that a female nurse deliberately infected a child with HIV. In the wake of this and the associated sensational news stories, a highly-problematic HIV prevention and control bill was passed.

Provisions of this bill require mandatory testing of sex workers and people convicted of drug use, as well as charges for exposure and transmission of HIV with sentences of between 5 and 10 years.  Despite this, Dora stated that the overturning of the Iowan laws had been an inspiration to herself and the people she works with, and that she remains hopeful that things will get better.

Patrick Eba from UNAIDS Geneva spoke about the global reach of problematic laws that criminalise HIV. Eba highlighted that contrary to the notion that HIV criminalisation was confined to rich, industrialised countries, in fact 2/3 of countries criminalising HIV are in the global south. Despite this bleak picture, Eba pointed out that Sierra Leone recently repealed laws criminalising mother-to-child transmission; again, providing hope that things can be wound back.

Despite the complexity in responding to laws which criminalise people with HIV, the AIDS 2014 preconference identified several examples of how such laws have been effectively challenged, and provided inspiration to those fighting to end HIV legal discrimination.

Michael Frommer is a Policy Analyst with the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO).

AFAO was a host of Beyond Blame in partnership with Living Positive Victoria, the Victorian AIDS Council, and the National Association of People with HIV Australia, with the support of AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Global Network of People Living with HIV, HIV Justice Network, International Community of Women Living with HIV, Sero Project and UNAIDS. 

Read the HIV Justice Network Report

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