Judicial officials convene in Dakar for consultation on HIV, the law and human rights

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Judicial officials convene in Dakar for consultation on HIV, the law and human rights

08 February 2011

On 7 February, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé spoke at the opening ceremony of a high-level consultation on HIV, the law and human rights in Dakar, Senegal.

Ministers of Justice and judges from across West and Central Africa gathered on 6-8 February in Dakar, Senegal, for a high-level consultation on HIV, the law and human rights. The meeting aimed to increase the engagement of judicial officials in the HIV response at national levels.

Eighty percent of countries in West and Central Africa have laws that criminalize HIV transmission, same-sex relations or sex work. Across the region, people living with HIV experience widespread stigma and discrimination in access to employment, education, health and social services. In many countries, people living with HIV and key populations at higher risk of HIV exposure—including sex workers and men who have sex with men—have limited access to legal support when injustices are committed.

“Laws should work for the AIDS response, not against it—they should never obstruct the health or survival of any individual,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, in his opening remarks at the consultation. “We must truly address discrimination and injustice related to AIDS,” he added. Mr Sidibé urged justice ministers to base their laws on science and ensure that all people have equal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

“We can no longer ignore the law as a means of combating HIV,” said Senegal’s Minister of Justice, Cheikh Tidiane Sy, noting that the epidemic had generated complex legal and human rights issues in the jurisprudence of countries across the region. Mr Sy underscored that judicial officials should not be limited to rendering decisions in a court of law. “It is equally important that magistrates involve themselves in activities that will increase legal knowledge among populations and ensure that they have access to justice,” he said.

The consultation—organized by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the African Association of Highest Francophone Jurisdictions (AA-HJF) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)—offered an opportunity for discussion on a range of HIV-related judgements, legal instruments and country-level initiatives. The meeting also provided a forum for individuals directly impacted by HIV-related laws, including people living with HIV, to share their experiences and perspectives.

Laws should work for the AIDS response, not against it—they should never obstruct the health or survival of any individual

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé

Speaking to meeting participants on Sunday, Jeanne Gapiya Niyonzima, an HIV-positive woman and President of the Burundian Association of People Living with HIV, recalled how her doctor immediately ordered the termination of her pregnancy and removal of her uterus after she tested positive for HIV. “As magistrates, you can appreciate the gravity of this kind of assault on the physical and social integrity of a human being,” said Ms Niyonzima. “If we fail to provide a conducive social and legal environment, we risk losing all gains in the HIV response,” she added.

Judicial officials can play a critical role in protecting human rights and pushing forward the HIV response. In Burkina Faso, for example, where an estimated 1.2% of the adult population is living with HIV, the UNDP-led Programme d’appui au monde associatif et communautaire (PAMAC) is collaborating with other non-profit organizations and David Kaboré—a judge and human rights defender—on a legal literacy project to promote and safeguard the rights of people living with HIV. Launched in 2003, the project offers free and confidential legal advice to people living with HIV and has been instrumental in highlighting and addressing cases of HIV-related discrimination in the country.

Many countries around the world continue to have laws or policies that undermine HIV responses and punish, rather than protect, people in need. Seventy-nine countries criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults. More than 100 countries, territories and areas criminalize some aspect of sex work. And 48 countries, territories or entities impose some form of restriction on the entry, stay or residence of HIV-positive people based on their HIV status.

UNAIDS advocates for protective laws and measures to ensure that all people in need benefit from HIV programmes and have access to justice, regardless of health status, gender, sexual orientation, drug use or sex work.

Last year, UNAIDS and UNDP launched the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, bringing together public leaders from many walks of life and regions, as well as experts in law, human rights and HIV. The UNDP-led Commission is working to ensure that laws support effective AIDS responses.