In Asia and the Pacific, as well as worldwide, laws and practices continue to often seriously hamper the progress made in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support. Some 150 participants from 22 countries from across the region gathered in Bangkok last week to discuss the issue. "In the Asia-Pacific region, and across the world, there are too many examples of countries with laws, policies and practices that punish, rather than protect, people in need of HIV services. Where the law doesn't advance justice, it stalls progress," said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), who joined the regional dialogue.
In a press conference preceding the debate, Sidibé marked the current situation with numbers: In the Asia Pacific region 90 percent of countries still have laws which obstruct the rights of people living with HIV and populations at higher risk of HIV exposure; 19 countries criminalize same-sex relations; 29 countries criminalize some aspect of sex work, 16 countries impose travel restrictions on people living with HIV and many countries enforce compulsory detention for people who use drugs, with 11 countries in Asia issuing the death penalty for drug offences.
Community advocates, law- and policymakers joined experts from the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, an independent body compromising some of the world's most respected legal, human right and HIV leaders, on 17 February 2011. The participants discussed and debated region-wide experiences of restrictive and enabling legal and social environments faced by the key affected populations in the Asia-Pacific region, including people living with HIV (PLHIV). It was the first in a series of regional debates to be held across the world this year.
The law often brings overwhelming obstacles to the most vulnerable groups, said Jon Ungphakorn, a Thai social activist, former Senator for Bangkok and Commissioner of the Global Council on HIV and the Law. "The criminalization of men who have sex with men and drug users prevents them from getting access to methods for HIV prevention and care. In many countries, drug users are not separated from drug dealers, facing very high penalties," he mentioned as examples.
"In Thailand we have universal access to antiretroviral drugs, but it is not universal. Migrant workers and refugees don't have that access. Prisoners have access but only if they are Thai," Ungphakorn explained, emphasizing prisons have lacking health systems and mentioning a survey that showed that the HIV rate is much higher among persons leaving prison than those who enter prison. "Prison is a place where they get HIV, and that is true for many countries."
The regional debate focused not solely on laws but on legal issues in general. "In fact there was a very strong message from the participants that it is not just about the law, but also on how it is applied. Law enforcement and obstacles in access to justice continue to be a problem and can increase the risk and vulnerability of people," Mandeep Dhaliwal, Cluster Leader HIV, Health, Human Rights and Governance at UNDP told Citizen News Service (CNS).
Other strong messages included the problems of criminalization and issues regarding mandatory testing. "There were many examples of good practices too, like judgments of courts which now need to get translated into meaningful change for affected communities," said Dhaliwal, who is member of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law's Technical Advisory Group.
"We definitely got a good picture of what happens and needs to be done in this region," she observes. "And part of the process of the regional debates is to create mobilization, to catalyze actions. A lot of legislators talked about what they were going to do now. We need to address issues of the law with the same vigor we have for prevention and treatment issues. There still is a profound lack of awareness on the effect that laws can have on people living with HIV and those most vulnerable to it."
Around the world six more dialogues will follow in different regions in the coming months. The Global Commission on HIV and the Law was launched in June 2010 by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), on behalf of UNAIDS, to analyze the most critical legal and human rights challenges of the HIV epidemic and recommend remedial policies. Its findings and recommendations will be announced in December. (CNS)
(The author writes for Citizen News Service (CNS) and is based in Thailand. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)