Unless governments act to end the human rights abuses fuelling the spread of HIV, little progress will be made towards addressing the global epidemic, 400 AIDS and human rights organizations said today. The coalition called on organizers of the biannual International AIDS Conference, which opens in Mexico City on August 3, 2008, to make human rights a central theme of the world’s largest gathering on HIV/AIDS.
“Ahead of the 17th international AIDS conference, governments are still violating the rights of people living with or at high risk of HIV infection,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments have done little to fulfill their frequent promises to end HIV-related rights abuses. But until they act to end such abuses, even the best-planned policies to treat HIV and stop the spread of AIDS will fail.”
The Mexican government, host of this year’s International AIDS Conference, has also made commitments to address HIV-related human rights abuses through legislation and programs, but has fallen short in implementing these promises.
“Mexico has good laws on HIV/AIDS,” said Anuar I. Luna Cadena of the Mexican Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. “But government institutions don’t adequately monitor abuses faced by people living with HIV or make sure they get the treatment and/or protection they’re legally entitled to.”
Sex workers in Mexico have reported human rights violations including physical abuse and discrimination experienced at the hands of police, civil servants, health workers, and employers. People living with HIV, men who have sex with men, and transgendered people also experience high levels of stigma and discrimination.
Outside of Africa, nearly one-third of all new HIV infections occur among injecting drug users. Yet effective measures to reduce HIV infection, such as needle-exchange programs and medication-assisted treatment with methadone, are banned by law in many countries or undermined by abusive police practices. Police abuse, sometimes amounting to torture, keeps people who use drugs away from basic HIV-prevention services, even where government policy supports these services. Police also routinely extort money and confessions from people who use drugs, sometimes using the mere possession of syringes as an excuse to harass or arrest drug users or outreach workers providing services to them. In prisons, the paucity of HIV prevention and effective drug treatment services only heightens HIV and other health risks. All too often, a sentence of imprisonment also leads to infection with HIV and/or tuberculosis.
“It is a tragic irony that those at highest risk of HIV often receive the least attention,” said Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “In many countries, drug users are the majority of people living with HIV, but the smallest group receiving antiretroviral treatment. When they’re arrested, they’re even less likely to receive the HIV prevention and treatment services they need.”
Across the globe, HIV and AIDS services geared toward men who have sex with men and toward sex workers are also hampered by punitive laws and abusive government practices. Officials charged with enforcing prostitution laws routinely extort bribes, confessions, testimony, and sexual “favors” from sex workers. In many countries, police confiscate condoms from AIDS outreach workers, and use them as evidence of sex work or sodomy.
The coalition of HIV/AIDS and human rights organizations also highlighted the human rights abuses faced by women, who account for the majority of HIV infections in Africa, the continent hardest hit by the pandemic. Laws that deny women equal access to divorce, property, and inheritance increase vulnerability to infection and hinder access to treatment. In many countries, governments do not aggressively prosecute domestic or gender-based violence, or even recognize rape or battery by intimate partners as a crime. This leaves women at risk of HIV infection by their husbands or boyfriends, and creates barriers to lifesaving HIV services.
“African governments rush to ratify international conventions, but drag their feet when it comes to ensuring human rights protections for women,” said Michaela Clayton, director of AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa. “Legislation protecting women’s rights has languished in African parliaments for years. Protecting women from violence and securing equal rights to property are critical steps to stemming the AIDS epidemic.”
The International AIDS Society, which organizes the conference, has affirmed the importance of addressing human rights abuses in HIV responses. This year’s conference program includes a plenary address on human rights, a Human Rights Networking Zone in the conference’s Global Village, and a rally on August 7 to highlight the need for a much greater focus on human rights to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care.
“There is no shortage of rhetoric about the importance of human rights in responding to HIV,” said Vivanco. “This conference is the time to turn words into action.”