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US: Gag Rule Threatens Global Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Amicus Shows How Anti-Prostitution Pledge Puts Sex Workers’ Lives, Health at Risk

(New York, December 22, 2006) – A federal appeals court should strike a provision of US anti-AIDS law that undermines proven and effective efforts to fight HIV/AIDS among sex workers, thus putting their lives and health at risk, Human Rights Watch and a coalition of 26 public health experts, human rights organizations and HIV/AIDS groups said December 21 in an amicus curiae to the court.

A US law enacted in 2003 requires nongovernmental organizations to pledge their opposition to prostitution as a condition of receiving funds for international anti-AIDS work. Two federal courts have ruled in separate cases that this policy violates fundamental free speech rights, and the US government has appealed both decisions.

The brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit argues that the compelled anti-prostitution pledge is at odds with US and internationally recognized public health practice, as well as human rights standards protecting the right to health. Leading US and international health agencies working to fight HIV/AIDS have recognized the crucial role sex workers play in fighting HIV/AIDS, and found that strategies that approach sex workers in a respectful and nonjudgmental manner are vital to earning the trust of sex workers and engaging them in efforts to stem the spread of HIV. Forcing NGOs to sign an official pledge opposing prostitution will impede such efforts, exacerbate existing stigma, and perpetuate discrimination against sex workers, driving them further underground and away from existing HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services.

The brief was filed in support of plaintiffs’ claims in Alliance for Open Society Institute (AOSI) et al. v. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) et al. In 2002, AOSI received a USAID grant to establish programs to fight HIV/AIDS in Central Asia. In August 2005, out of concern that the U.S. government would eliminate these lifesaving programs, AOSI signed the anti-prostitution pledge, and then sued USAID to secure its Constitutional and statutory rights to engage in a range of privately financed activities to fight HIV/AIDS. The Open Society Institute (OSI) joined the lawsuit to ensure that USAID would not penalize AOSI or OSI for any of OSI’s privately financed activities. Pathfinder joined the lawsuit to protect its ability to provide urgently needed HIV/AIDS-related care and treatment to at-risk populations worldwide. On May 9, 2006, a New York federal court ruled in AOSI et al. v. USAID et al. that the pledge requirement violated fundamental free speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution of plaintiffs AOSI and Pathfinder International. On May 18, 2006 in DKT International v. USAID et al., a Washington, D.C. federal court issued a similar ruling in a separate case. These court decisions directly apply only to US organizations, but apparently would also leave non-US grantees subject to the requirement.

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