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Countries with punitive laws criminalising LGBT+ people threatens the fight to end new HIV infections by 2030

4 min read

Thanks to advances in medicine over the past 40 years, there is no reason why people living with HIV should live shorter lives than someone without HIV.

We now have the tools available to radically to slow new infections through education and prevention measures.

However, the ability to prevent the spread of HIV is being seriously compromised. Punitive laws, discriminatory and brutal policing and being denied access to justice for people with and at risk of acquiring HIV are fuelling an epidemic.

Structural factors, such as stigma, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the criminalisation of same-sex sexual practices, are barriers to the availability, access and uptake of HIV prevention, testing and treatment services.

Out of the 53 countries in the Commonwealth, 36 have laws that criminalise homosexuality. One in four men in Caribbean countries, where homosexuality is criminalised, have HIV and 60 per cent of people globally who live with HIV live in Commonwealth countries.

There is overwhelming evidence of the link between the criminalisation of homosexuality and the rate of HIV infection

These barriers undermine the basic right to health - a right which all people should enjoy. Beyond human rights implications, laws criminalising homosexuality also impact public health. Since LGBTQ+ people will not seek health services for fear of being prosecuted, these laws impede the public health of anyone living with HIV. Laws which generally require the person in question to know their status. They may therefore discourage some people from being tested. In some countries, even those people living with HIV and take reasonable precautions against transmission, can be criminalised.

For at least 20 years we have known that antiretroviral therapy reduces HIV transmission. But for the last few years, leading scientists agree that the risk is not just reduced – it is stopped completely. There should be no doubt that a person with sustained, undetectable levels of HIV in their blood cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partners.

However, under current Canadian criminal law, people living with HIV can be charged and prosecuted if they do not inform their sexual partner(s) about their HIV-positive status before having sex.

Exposure to a communicable disease could, of course, be applied to many different viruses—including SARS-CoV-2, Covid-19. So far, there are no reports of people refusing to wear masks being convicted under that law. Nonetheless, in many countries, human rights have taken a backseat to the pandemic response. Civil society must address criminalisation as well as rights and resource issues in the wake of the pandemic.

Beyond their effect on individual persons prosecuted under them, such criminal laws perpetuate structural inequalities, discrimination, and xenophobia. To counter this, we need to strengthen solidarity between and with affected people. We also must be aware of the unintended effects some laws meant to protect vulnerable communities might have.

At the heart of international efforts to deal with this pandemic is a crisis of human rights law – not medicine. There is now overwhelming evidence of the link between the criminalisation of homosexuality and the rate of HIV infection.

In June, the UK government was expected to hold the “Safe To Be Me” conference. This was an opportunity to build on the political declaration passed at the UN High Level Meeting in June 2021, to set goals and actions, ensure laws mirror science and punitive laws aimed at the LGBTQ+ are reformed.

We have an opportunity at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda in June, to speak with other members of the Commonwealth and encourage them to reform their laws – not only on LGBT+ issues, but on HIV as well.

To end new diagnoses of HIV by 2030, punitive laws against LGBT+ communities must be reformed. If we do not, then we will never meet this target set by the UN.


David Mundell is the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. He is co-chair of the APPG on HIV and AIDS.

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