When the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was first identified, many governments around the world followed a similar path: first denying that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), that causes AIDS, exists, then blaming foreigners for bringing the disease to their country.
That approach not only failed to control the epidemic, but also stirred intolerance and xenophobia. Decades after others have learned that lesson, South Korea still seems to be stumbling down that road.
An estimated 13,000 people in South Korea are infected with HIV. That number has been increasing steadily over the past few years, doubling since 2001. South Korea has made significant strides in condom promotion, HIV testing and information and awareness campaigns.
But the view persists that HIV is a problem of "others'' and that it can be controlled by testing all who try to enter South Korea and barring those living with HIV from coming, or staying.
The problem is, we live in an increasingly globalized world, and this approach is not only ineffective, it is counterproductive.
The idea of controlling HIV through testing foreigners ignores the nature of how HIV is transmitted, and the fact that HIV transmission occurs locally. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognized this in 1987, declaring the screening of international travelers for HIV to be ineffective as a public health strategy.
Laws banning the entry of individuals living with HIV also tend to increase stigma and to create a false sense that only non-citizens are at risk for HIV.
These laws diminish efforts to expand domestic HIV prevention and treatment efforts. More fundamentally, these discriminatory laws are contradictory to human rights and an understanding that we all enjoy basic rights, regardless of our HIV status.
At the U.N. General Assembly High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS in June 2008, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proclaimed that "[i]n the world as a whole, I call for a change in laws that uphold stigma and discrimination - including restrictions on travel for people living with HIV,'' both because stigma "drives the virus underground, where it can spread in the dark; [and] as important, it is an affront to our common humanity.''
South Korea's restrictions on entry, stay and residence for people living with HIV broadly violate international human rights law provisions banning discrimination and upholding equality.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which South Korea has acceded to, guarantees everyone the right to equal protection of the law without discrimination, a provision interpreted to include barring discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status.
Additionally, South Korea promised in the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, and in subsequent declarations, to enact appropriate legislation to eliminate all forms of discrimination against people living with HIV.
South Korea's practice of deporting people living with HIV got fresh attention last year when "Heo,'' a Chinese citizen of Korean descent who was visiting his mother in Korea, was tested for HIV, found to be positive, detained and ordered to be deported.
The National Human Rights Commission represented ``Heo,'' and the Seoul High Court (upholding the Seoul Administrative Court) prevented the deportation.
The court found that public health goals must be balanced against the rights to privacy and to receive medical treatment, and that detection and treatment rather than deportation are the most effective means of curbing the spread of HIV.
The South Korean government has also pledged "an open society for all.'' Minister of Justice Kim Kyung-han recently wrote in a Korea Times op-ed entitled "Breaking Down Walls of Discrimination'' that the government has been pushing for a "proactive immigration policy that shifts the focus from regulation and control to openness and exchange.''
Despite the court's ruling and these positive words from the minister, the Seoul government seems to be pressing ahead, inventing public health justifications for discriminatory policies and fomenting intolerance.
In December, a parliament bill was introduced that would expand requirements under the Ministry of Justice's E-2 visa policy (which largely affects foreigners seeking to teach English).
Under the measure, immigration officials could require drug and HIV testing of any foreigner seeking a work visa. The bill's purpose statement says Koreans need "measures to deal with the threat [foreigners] posed to our society's public order and our people's health.''
South Korea does, indeed, need to adopt measures to deal with the threat posed to people's health. The threat, however, is not from foreigners. It is from ignorance.
Excluding and deporting HIV positive non-citizens will not lead to a safer or healthier South Korea. Expanding HIV prevention and treatment and respecting human rights will.
Joseph Amon is the director of the health and human rights division of Human Rights Watch. The views expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.