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Why we need a global HIV is Not A Crime Awareness Day

HIV Awareness (Credit: B Christopher / Alamy Stock Photo)

3 min read

The second HIV is Not a Crime Awareness Day is on 28 February 2023. It was launched by the Sero Project who are part of the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition — in collaboration with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, community activists and public policy organisations across the United States. The day is a call to give life to the various statements and policy recommendations recognising the negative impacts of HIV criminalisation on health and rights.

HIV criminalisation may be prevalent across the United States (US), but it is by no means just a US phenomenon. Did you know that in 129 countries, people living with HIV are being prosecuted under HIV-specific criminal laws, or have been under general criminal or similar laws (e.g., assault, attempted murder, communicable disease law) in the past ten years for HIV non-disclosure, potential or perceived exposure, or transmission? Penalties are often vastly disproportionate to any risk or harm caused, including lengthy jail terms and/or sex offender designation.

This unjust application of criminal penalties is the ultimate manifestation of state-sponsored HIV stigma, exacerbated through vitriolic media coverage and heavy-handed policing. The application of laws that fly in the face of science and human rights further exacerbates this stigma, impedes service accessibility, and reduces the effectiveness of HIV-related funding and programmes. Indeed, UNAIDS's Global AIDS Strategy explicitly recognises HIV criminalisation as a barrier to ending HIV as a public health threat by 2030.

Far from being a legitimate tool for public health, HIV criminalisation is often a proxy mechanism for increased state control, policing of marginalised groups and punishment of social vulnerability. It is also often an overreaction to a negligible risk of HIV transmission driven by HIV-related stigma, gender-based violence and/or racism.

We cannot end the HIV epidemic unless we remove HIV criminalisation laws, policies and practices that harm HIV-impacted communities everywhere

HIV criminalisation often occurs together with, and compounds the harms caused by, other criminal or punitive sanctions such as those used against sex workers, LGBTQ+ people, migrants, people living in poverty, and people who use drugs. In addition, the likelihood of prosecution under HIV criminalisation laws is increased for those who experience intersecting discrimination, including on the basis of race, ethnicity, migrant status, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation, as well as people in prison and other closed settings, unsheltered individuals, and people with disabilities, notably with mental health issues.

Despite United Nations recommendations to limit HIV criminalisation to extremely rare cases of intentional HIV transmission (i.e., acting with malicious intent to cause harm) only a handful of jurisdictions limit the law as recommended. We have seen successful law repeal or reform in 26 jurisdictions in 15 countries, but clearly there is much more to do to reach the UNAIDS target of fewer than 10 per cent of countries with punitive laws and policies (including HIV criminalisation) by 2025.

We cannot end the HIV epidemic unless we remove HIV criminalisation laws, policies and practices that harm HIV-impacted communities everywhere. That is why the HIV Justice Network creates and disseminates advocacy tools and resources and provides training through our HIV Justice Academy.

So, on this HIV is Not a Crime Awareness Day, we hope you will raise awareness of this issue amongst your colleagues and peers and encourage your counterparts in other countries to end HIV criminalisation.

Edwin J Bernard, executive director at HIV Justice Network

Alison Symington, senior policy analyst, HIV Justice Network

Florence Eshalomi, Labour (Co-op) MP for Vauxhall and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group HIV and AIDS

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