Verdict on a Virus

13 Nov 2008

The criminal law is a blunt instrument for HIV prevention.  Yet from the UK to the USA, Mali to Mozambique, Azerbaijan to Australia, criminal laws are increasingly being used to prosecute HIV transmission or exposure. This undermines human rights and jeopardizes hard won gains in the global response to HIV.

Verdict on a Virus: Public Health, Human Rights and Criminal Law - shows that a simplistic ‘law-and-order' response to HIV and the way in which individual court cases are reported in the media only serve to intensify a climate of denial, secrecy and fear. This creates a fertile breeding ground for the continued and rapid spread of HIV.

While the United Kingdom provides global leadership on many HIV related issues, it has not provided a shining example in relation to criminalization.  The media coverage of HIV criminal prosecutions in the UK has generated headlines such as "AIDS Assassin", undermining decades of work to reduce the stigma associated with HIV. A total of 16 prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service have taken place in the UK since 2001 - disrupting lives and damaging public health gains.  In fact, legal standards set by many European countries do not provide models for imitation.

Since 2005 a wave of laws criminalizing HIV transmission has swept across Africa. In Sierra Leone, for example, this approach led to the approval of a law that explicitly criminalizes a mother living with HIV who exposes her fetus to the virus. In Egypt, merely living with HIV can lead to prosecution for crimes of ‘debauchery'.

" Today one of the most pressing issues in the AIDS epidemic is the use of criminal statutes and criminal prosecutions against HIV transmission. Such laws are increasingly wide in their application and frightening in their effects. HIV is a virus, not a crime. That fact is elementary, and all-important. Too often law-makers and prosecutors overlook it." - Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Supreme Court, South Africa.

This publication brings together opinion from legal experts, human rights groups, medical and health professionals and HIV activists, illustrated with case studies and mapping the spread of criminal laws relating to HIV.