On the eve of the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance warned that in the excitement over recent scientific advances there is a danger that one of the drivers of the epidemic – human rights violations - will be forgotten.
Alvaro Bermejo, the Alliance’s Executive Director, said: “We certainly don’t want to be a killjoy or the spectre at the feast, and we should be proud of the fact that more than eight million people worldwide, many of them in some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, got the antiretroviral treatment that they need last year.
“But this year we have witnessed some spine chilling abuse of people most at risk of HIV that carries a very real threat of setting back any progress made to date in stemming new infections. Take Uganda for example where the government is on the verge of banning a number of what it calls ‘gay rights’ agencies. It’s no surprise that this is a country where gains have been lost and that there are more new infections now than five years ago.”
He continued: “Meanwhile, hate crimes against Latin America’s transgender population continue at an alarming rate and with rampant impunity. Ultimately, ostracizing vulnerable groups like men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and sex workers will drive people away from safer sex counselling, HIV treatment and care.”
A recent report by The Global Commission on HIV and the Law found that 78 countries make same-sex activity a criminal offence, with penalties ranging from whipping to execution, including stoning in parts of Nigeria where Sharia law applies. The report also found that in more than 60 countries it is a crime to expose another person to HIV or to transmit it, often leading to people not getting tested to ascertain their status.
In many countries, the law dehumanises those at highest risk of HIV which can lead to them being excluded from health care and other services. In Myanmar, Malaysia and the Philippines, which is one of only seven countries listed by UNAIDS to have experienced a rising infection rate in 2010, people who use drugs are criminalised.
According to Hetty Sarjeant of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Alliance: “We have seen HIV funding being diverted away from middle income countries even though this is where the majority of people with HIV live. This in turn is undermining any progress we have made in the region in convincing governments to provide services and support for the less fortunate in our society.”
Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica are all among the ten countries with the world's highest rates of HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM). However, resources devoted to HIV prevention, treatment and care for vulnerable and marginalised populations do not reflect their HIV risk. For example in Trinidad and Tobago from 2004 to 2010 less than five percent of the money spent on prevention was allocated to programmes for MSM, sex workers, people who use drugs and prisoners.
The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, which last year reached 2.8 million people through 39 organizations working to support community action on AIDS, is urging governments and donors to adopt comprehensive and inclusive national responses to HIV/AIDS by:
- ensuring that wider political, social and economic realities are considered when addressing HIV in any society
- creating an environment that fully respects, protects and promotes human rights and allows people living with and vulnerable to HIV to participate in responding to HIV
- working towards greatest possible access to HIV-related services, including prevention programmes for most at risk populations
Bermejo went on to say: “It is only when human rights are placed at the core of national HIV programmes that positive public health outcomes will be achieved. Without reducing the vulnerability of marginalised populations and addressing human rights violations against people living with HIV, universal access will not be realised.
“Criminal laws and policies which target people based on their HIV status must be repealed. Whilst we applaud the efforts of everyone involved in turning the tide on the epidemic, let’s not get overly complacent that our work here is done.
“More than seven million people are still in need of access to ART for example and the latest UNAIDS data indicates that we have not seen a significant decrease in the number of new infections or AIDS-related deaths in the past year. We simply can’t afford to stop now.”