Vienna, 16 July 2010 – Fifty legal experts, people living with HIV, and representatives of affected communities from Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, Southern Africa and the USA met today at the Steigenberger Hotel Herrenhof to address HIV-related discrimination and other legal issues such as laws on sex and drug use, inheritance and property rights, child custody issues, and police harassment and abuse.
This debate followed four regional consultations that identified HIV-related discrimination as a key challenge. ‘Discrimination is widely seen as the largest obstacle to scaling up HIV prevention and care services,’ noted Terry McGovern, a program officer with the Ford Foundation, which supported the meeting. ‘Even in countries that have laws prohibiting discrimination, people living with HIV often don’t know how to claim their rights, and there are far too few lawyers trained to help them.’
Michaela Clayton, Director of the AIDS Rights Alliance of Southern Africa (ARASA), noted that in many countries in the region, HIV-specific legal services are limited to larger cities and mainstream legal services are often expensive and cannot handle HIV-related cases with the necessary skill and sensitivity.
Mandeep Dhaliwal, Cluster Leader of the Human Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversities Unit at the UN Development Program in New York, suggested engaging with UNDP’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law (launched in June 2010) to draw attention to local HIV-related legal and human rights issues. ‘The Commission will focus on legal environments and it will be important for the Commission to hear about the access to justice and issues related to HIV-related legal services.’
The experts discussed how to expand legal services by engaging government legal aid programs and the private legal professional sector. They also discussed working with alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and traditional legal systems in communities where the formal justice sector is weak.
McGovern noted that some groups face double discrimination, as people living with HIV, and because of their race, sex, or other reasons. ‘In the United States, racial minorities, women, prisoners and immigrants face even higher barriers in accessing good legal services. Over half of the states of the USA have criminal offenses for HIV exposure and transmission, which are often inappropriately applied.’
The group reviewed the experience of strategic litigation of test cases on issues such as: employment discrimination (South Africa and Zambia), coerced sterilization (Namibia), and sodomy laws (Malawi). While law reform is often urgently needed, the experts noted that litigation and advocacy can sometimes achieve policy changes without waiting for law reform. Even the presence of a lawyer can achieve a better settlement, e.g. for unfair dismissal, without going to court.
Participants from the Middle East and North Africa noted that it can be difficult to find a lawyer willing to represent someone living with HIV. HIV educators distributing clean needles, condoms and HIV information can be subject to harassment and arrest. There are often no agreements in place with police or government to protect them.
Recommendations from the meeting include greater networking and sharing of experiences between countries and regions. The Ford Foundation and IDLO will use the recommendations for future support for HIV-related legal services and rights.
The consultation was hosted by the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), with financial support from the Ford Foundation and the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID).
For any further information on this consultation and on IDLO presence at the XVIII International Conference on AIDS in Vienna, please contact: Mr. David Patterson, Manager, HIV and Health Law Program, firstname.lastname@example.org, Cell Phone: +39 345 917 5135 (until 23 July only).