A message from the Canadian HIV AIDS Legal Network:
The international movement against HIV criminalization is growing, with renewed calls for action and advocacy — most recently at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. During a week of discussions, attendees regularly underscored the importance of intersectionality in the global efforts to end the punitive and abusive laws that harm people living with HIV and other marginalized communities, including racialized populations, LGBTI people, people who use drugs, and sex workers.
At the opening plenary, in front of a crowd that included the Canadian federal Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Philpott and Justice Edwin Cameron of the Constitutional Court of South Africa denounced the notorious 2012 Mabior decision and demanded “all Canadians share the blame” for exacerbating the HIV epidemic through an excessive use of the criminal law against people living with HIV. Justice Cameron then invited activists, including staff members of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, to join him on stage with signs calling for an end to the criminalization of HIV, sex work and drug use (see above). The auditorium erupted with “We have a virus. We are not criminals. End criminalization now!”
In this spirit of advocacy, the Legal Network used AIDS 2016 to mobilize community and increase visibility on criminalization. Together with partners from HIV Justice Worldwide, an initiative made up of civil society organizations from around the world working to end HIV criminalization, we convened a pre-conference on HIV criminalization, Beyond Blame, which brought together 150 advocates, activists, researchers and community leaders to discuss the progress being made in global efforts to combat the unjust use of the criminal law against people living with HIV. Attendees heard about success stories from Kenya, Colorado (USA) and Australia, where activists have successfully challenged HIV criminalization through law reform or strategic litigation, as well as upcoming initiatives in Uganda and DRC.
Other highlights from the Beyond Blame pre-conference included testimonies from individuals with first-hand experience of HIV criminalization, including one person from the U.S. who phoned in directly from prison. In a presentation about the Canadian consensus statement on HIV and its transmission, Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer Cynthia Fromstein described how defence lawyers are using the statement, and seeing positive outcomes on prosecutions.
During the AIDS conference proper, we participated in several sessions on criminalization, and co-organized an inspiring feminist workshop (with Positive Women’s Network USA and the AIDS Law project from Kenya) exploring the issue of HIV criminalization in the context of power dynamics and violence against women. Delegates discussed strategies to engage women living with HIV about criminalization, protecting women’s rights and building the case against unjust prosecutions.