Helen Clark: Keynote address, opening session of the Global Dialogue

Reflections on the Global Commission on HIV and the Law

I am delighted to deliver remarks on behalf of UNDP at this final dialogue of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Over the last 24 months, UNDP has supported the work of the Commission on behalf of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS.

The culmination of this independent Commission’s work comes at a critical juncture in the global AIDS response. There is growing understanding that to sustain and scale up the impressive gains made in HIV prevention and treatment, the social determinants of HIV must also be addressed.

Significant progress in science and technology has provided the tools needed to slow the rate of new HIV infections radically, and stop HIV-related deaths. To complement this progress, bad laws should not be allowed to stand in the way of effective HIV responses.

A growing chorus is calling for the removal of punitive laws and practices impeding effective HIV responses. This Commission’s report provides compelling evidence to support these calls.

The Commission’s work reveals that evidence-based laws and practices firmly grounded in human rights do exist, and are powerful instruments for challenging stigma, promoting public health, and protecting human rights. The benefits are felt beyond HIV responses to encompass health and development outcomes more broadly. For example:

  • Where the law empowers women, their vulnerability to HIV and violence is also decreased. 
  • Where the law enables men and women living with HIV to participate with dignity in daily life without fearing discrimination and possible prosecution, they are more likely to seek prevention, care, and support services.
  • Where the law supports young people’s access to comprehensive sexuality education and health services, HIV prevention efforts for young people are more effective.
  • Those who bear a disproportionate burden of HIV across the world include sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, and transgender people. Where they are protected from the threat of violence, and where their informed consent is respected, they are much more likely to access HIV services. 
  • Where the law does not stand in the way of proven HIV prevention interventions reaching those who use drugs and those who are prisoners, and where the law does not criminalise adult consensual sex and gender identity, HIV prevention outcomes are improved.
  • Where the law protects the right to health and ensures that treatment continuity is not threatened by trade agreements with excessive intellectual property protections, or other policies, the goal of having fifteen million people on life-saving treatment by 2015 can be achieved.

The task at hand now is how we work together to ensure that better laws are enacted and enforced and better approaches are adopted as urgently as possible.

In the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, issued here at the UN in New York, Member States committed to reviewing laws and policies which impede effective HIV responses. One of the key effects of this Commission’s work has been to stimulate law review and change in a number of countries already, through multi-stakeholder national dialogues on HIV and the law, judicial and Parliamentary sensitisation, and “access to justice” programming.

For example:

  • Last year, the first sensitisation on issues of HIV and the law for the Caribbean judiciary took place. Six days from now, there will be a judicial sensitisation programme on issues of HIV and the law for the Jamaican judiciary.
  • In the United States, bills against the criminalisation of HIV transmission and exposure and on expanding sex education in schools have been introduced to Congress. 
  • Finland, Norway and Denmark are reviewing public health law criminalising HIV transmission and exposure. Guyana and Fiji have altogether rejected HIV criminalisation as bad public health policy.
  • Law review and reform is being discussed in a range of countries, including the Cook Islands, Malawi, Moldova, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, and Ukraine.
  • In Jamaica, litigation challenging the constitutionality of its anti sodomy law is underway.
  • Recent changes to municipal law in Chongqing, China, have resulted in the removal of forced labour as a form of punishment for sex workers and their clients. Just last month, the Vietnamese National Assembly adopted a provision abolishing administrative detention for sex workers.

The Commission’s work shows that even with the complexity and challenges inherent in law reform, much can be done to strengthen legal environments to enable more effective HIV responses. For example, countries can:

  • ensure that police protect women and populations at highest risk of HIV against violence;
  • enact and enforce laws against discrimination on the basis of HIV, and set up administrative or judicial procedures so that people can access justice in the context of HIV;
  • decide not to introduce or enforce punitive laws which render at risk populations even more vulnerable and prevent them from accessing HIV services;
  • invest in programmes to reduce stigma and discrimination and strengthen access to justice.

There is much to be done to deliver on the human rights and law-related commitments made in the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS. This afternoon’s dialogue should be a frank discussion about how to use the Commission’s findings and recommendations to craft effective and sustainable HIV responses which promote social justice and human development. Today’s dialogue can offer insights into how the post-2015 development agenda might acknowledge the role of the law in addressing issues of discrimination and inequality.

I thank all our Commissioners for making time in their busy lives to work on this report, and hope that its recommendations will lead to a new deal for HIV response around the world.