Feature story

Countries questioning laws that criminalize HIV transmission and exposure

26 April 2011

Credit: UNAIDS/P.Virot

On 17 February 2011, Denmark’s Minister of Justice announced the suspension of Article 252 of the Danish Criminal Code. This law is reportedly the only HIV-specific criminal law provision in Western Europe and has been used to prosecute some 18 individuals.

A working group has been established by the Danish government to consider whether the law should be revised or abolished based on the best available scientific evidence relating to HIV and its transmission.

This development in Denmark is not an exception. Last year, a similar official committee was created in Norway to inform the ongoing revision of Section 155 of the Penal Code, which criminalises the wilful or negligent infection or exposure to communicable disease that is hazardous to public health—a law that has only been used to prosecute people transmitting HIV.

In the United States, the country with the highest total number of reported prosecutions for HIV transmission or exposure, the National AIDS Strategy adopted in July 2010 also raised concerns about HIV-specific laws that criminalize HIV transmission or exposure. Some 34 states and 2 territories in the US have such laws. They have resulted in high prison sentences for HIV-positive people being convicted of “exposing” someone to HIV after spitting on or biting them, two forms of behaviour that carry virtually no risk of transmission.

In February 2011, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), the organization representing public health officials that administer state and territorial HIV programmes, expressed concerns about the “corrosive impact” of overly-broad laws criminalizing HIV transmission and exposure. The AIDS Directors called for the repeal of laws that are not “grounded in public health science” as such laws discourage people from getting tested for HIV and accessing treatment.

Positive developments have also been reported in Africa. In the past year, at least three countries—Guinea, Togo and Senegal—have revised their existing HIV-related legislation or adopted new legislation that restrict the use of the criminal law to exceptional cases of intentional transmission of HIV.

Best available scientific evidence to inform the criminal law

These developments indicate that governments are also calling for a better understanding of risk, harm and proof in relation to HIV transmission, particularly in light of scientific and medical evidence that the infectiousness of people receiving anti-retroviral treatment can be significantly reduced.

To assist countries in the just application of criminal law in the context of HIV, UNAIDS has initiated a project to further investigate current scientific, medical, legal and human rights aspects of the criminalization of HIV transmission. This project aims to ensure that the application, if any, of criminal law to HIV transmission or exposure is appropriately circumscribed by the latest and most relevant scientific evidence and legal principles so as to guarantee justice and protection of public health. The project, with support from the Government of Norway, will focus on high income countries where the highest number of prosecutions for HIV infection or exposure has been reported.

The initiative will consist of two expert meetings to review scientific, medical, legal and human rights issues related to the criminalization of HIV transmission or exposure. An international consultation on the criminalization of HIV transmission and exposure in high income countries will also be organized. The project will further elaborate on the principles set forth in the Policy brief on the criminalization of HIV transmission issued by UNAIDS and UNDP in 2008. Its findings will be submitted to the UNDP-led Global Commission on HIV and the Law, which was launched by UNDP and UNAIDS in June 2010.

As with any law reform related to HIV, UNAIDS urges governments to engage in reform initiatives which ensure the involvement of all those affected by such laws, including people living with HIV.