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(Toronto) – Ongoing rights abuses are undermining efforts to fight the HIV pandemic and threatening the few, hard-won successes, Human Rights Watch said today, a month before the XVI International AIDS Conference opens in Toronto.

"Twenty-five years into the epidemic, people living with HIV or AIDS are still feared and stigmatized," said Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS program at Human Rights Watch. "We can't defeat AIDS unless we end outrageous abuses against activists, outreach workers, people living with AIDS and those most vulnerable to infection."

Human Rights Watch said that since the 2004 AIDS conference in Bangkok numerous AIDS activists, outreach workers, people living with HIV/AIDS and those thought to be infected have been imprisoned, assaulted and even murdered.

Human Rights Watch listed examples of such abuses from the past year across the globe, including:

  • In June 2005, Octavio Acuña Rubio, an AIDS and human rights activist, was stabbed to death in the condom shop he ran in Queretaro, Mexico.
  • In July 2005, police attacked peaceful protestors demonstrating about AIDS in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, firing upon them with rubber bullets and tear gas.
  • In Uganda, police raided the home of AIDS activist Victor Juliet Mukasa in July 2005.
  • In November 2005, Steve Harvey, an outspoken AIDS activist in Jamaica, was murdered in an apparent hate crime.
  • On December 1, five Zimbabwean AIDS activists who had won a court ruling permitting their protest, were arrested while commemorating World AIDS Day at a public square in Harare.
  • Later that month two Guatemalan activists on AIDS and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues, were attacked by four assailants wearing national police uniforms and riding national police motorcycles. One was killed and the other was critically wounded.
  • In February 2006, Hu Jia, a prominent AIDS activist in China was detained for 41 days without explanation.
  • One month later, at least 23 people living with HIV in Henan province were put under house arrest to keep them from bringing petitions to the Chinese congress.
  • In April 2006, Isaiah Gakuyo, 15, was killed with a pitchfork by his uncle and guardian for being HIV-positive. Bystanders in Wandumbi village in central Kenya refused to help for fear of becoming infected.
  • In June 2006, Vivian Kavuma was murdered by her lover in Uganda after disclosing that she was infected with HIV.

"Many more cases of abuse happen daily, but we never find out about them and can't document them," Amon said.

Human Rights Watch also said that countries previously hailed as success stories in the fight against AIDS are at risk of losing ground:

  • In Uganda, which had seen declines in the HIV prevalence rate, infections have increased as the government and evangelical groups have promoted abstinence-only messages and attacked the effectiveness of condoms.
  • In Thailand, one of the first success stories in the fight against AIDS, condom use is down and infections of sexually transmitted diseases are up. The government has done little to reduce HIV infection among drug users or migrant workers, and leading AIDS experts say that Thailand's success is "history."
  • In Zimbabwe, where HIV prevalence declined markedly between 2000 and 2005, youths face an unemployment rate of more than 70 percent and an annual inflation rate of 1000 percent. Some 350,000 people urgently need anti-retroviral drugs but only about 25,000 have access to them. The life expectancy for women is 34 years - the lowest in the world.
  • In the United States, black women are 19 times more likely to be infected with HIV than white women, and despite government pledges to halve the number of new infections, the country has seen little change in the overall number of new infections in the past decade. Programs that once vigorously and creatively challenged communities to confront AIDS and learn how to protect themselves from HIV are being replaced by proposals to eliminate individual pre-test counseling and written consent, and simply have doctors routinely test everyone they treat for HIV.

"These countries became success stories with open dialogue led by community leaders and government policies that respected and promoted rights," said Amon. "But now moralizing messages and restrictive policies are replacing frank discussion. We are no longer empowering vulnerable populations but squandering the gains we had made."

Human Rights Watch called on all government representatives, United Nations officials, and delegates coming to Toronto to recognize that only by protecting the rights of those most vulnerable, and by empowering those most marginalized, can the few success stories to date in the fight against AIDS be expanded and sustained.

"We know how to win the fight against AIDS," said Amon. "We must provide information on HIV transmission, protect women from sexual violence, ensure access to condoms, clean needles and methadone, and expand access to anti-retroviral drugs. Defeating AIDS is still more a question of political will than one of knowledge or know-how."

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