"Decriminalization Works, Criminalization Doesn't": Leadership Panel
A panel of leaders came together on 22 July at a special session to discuss the impact of criminalization of HIV transmission and of people most-at-risk of HIV infection.
Moderated by Stephen Lewis, co-founder and director of AIDS-Free World, the panel consisted of H.E. Festus Mogae, former President of the Republic of Botswana, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, João Goulão, national drug coordinator and chairperson of Portugal's Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, Gill Greer, Director-General, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), and Tim Barnett, Global Programme Manager of the World AIDS Campaign.
The first panellist to speak, Mr. Sidibé told delegates that the theme of the session was probably one of the most important -- and most urgent to address -- at the XVIII International AIDS Conference. "If we don't address criminalization, how can we deliver on universal access? Universal access is about ensuring the rights of all people," said Mr. Sidibé. "Instead of embracing universal access many countries have put up universal obstacles with bad laws."
Mr. Sidibé gave examples of countries that have moved away from punishment to provide HIV services to drug users, such as China, Indonesia and Malaysia, and stressed the importance of countries to capture data that demonstrate how decriminalization supports -- and not hampers -- the AIDS response.
The head of IPPF, Ms. Greer said criminalization of HIV transmission and behaviours is not the answer. "Rather than receiving support, vulnerable groups are put at fair greater risk, including their families," she said. "Criminalization reaches beyond the individual and reaches out to entire communities. Governments should criminalize hate and violence."
To strengthen the AIDS response, Ms. Greer said people need access to information, knowledge and services. "What is truly criminal is that people are denied this," she added.
H.E. Mr. Mogae, who used several platforms throughout the conference to advocate for the human rights of people living with HIV, summarized criminalization in one word: "Futile". He said the body of evidence on the issue indicates that decriminalization strengthens the response, especially in HIV prevention.
"The key to prevention is knowing one's status. Knowing your status triggers access to treatment and care, and it triggers empowerment to stay HIV-free," said H.E. Mr. Mogae. "If you criminalize HIV transmission, people will not come forward for fear of being further stigmatized and discriminated against. What we want to do is to de-stigmatize so people can come forward."