Wednesday, 12 August 2009

ICAAP9: Removal of punitive laws essential for effective AIDS responses in Asia-Pacific

By Syed Akbar
Bali, Aug 12: UN agencies, legal experts and human rights defenders at the 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) concur that crafting an effective AIDS response in the region will require addressing legal
barriers that are impeding progress.

Throughout the week, scientists, legal experts, activists, people living with HIV and
community representatives will discuss challenges and progress in addressing legal barriers to achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010.

Experts from the Commission on AIDS in Asia concluded that in order to prevent and control HIV in the region, there must be a significant focus on improving human rights protections for people living with HIV and typically marginalized populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who use drugs, prisoners and detainees.

According to Kyung wha-Kang, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), “we have known for years that human rights are the bedrock upon which effective AIDS responses are built. In spite
of this, human rights violations continue to proliferate. Human rights frameworks and principles must be translated into real protections for people living with HIV, men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who
use drugs, prisoners and detainees. We must also pay specific attention to ensuring protections for women and children.”

According to JVR Prasada Rao, Director of the Joint UN Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) Asia-Pacific Regional Support Team, “in spite of recent progress, insufficient coverage of services for people living with HIV, men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs is still a reality and the lack of legal protections just drive these populations underground – far out of the reach of the meager services that do exist. If we don’t invest in strengthening legal protections for people living with HIV, women, men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, we will jeopardize the gains we have made in the region. This is why the UNAIDS family has recently reinvigorated its collective efforts to advocate for the removal of punitive laws, policies and practices which are thwarting effective HIV responses. This also
means stepping up action to tackle inappropriate criminalization.”

According to Jeffrey O’Malley, Director of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) HIV Group, “the law can and should be instrumental in scaling up a rights based AIDS response. Instead, we often have situations where laws and their
arbitrary, inappropriate enforcement are increasing risk and vulnerability – thereby posing formidable barriers to effective HIV responses for those most vulnerable and the general population.”

According to O’Malley, “laws which criminalize sex work are used to blackmail, exploit and harass sex workers and sex workers often experience violence at the hands of police and service providers. Violence and harassment often extends to outreach workers, service providers and human rights defenders. Laws which criminalize drug use hamper the implementation of evidence based harm reduction services.

Laws which do not uphold women’s property and inheritance rights can set off a
downward spiral of lost economic opportunities, reduced security and increased risk and vulnerability for women and girls.

Many countries in the Asia Pacific region criminalize male to male sex and these laws often lead to violations of the rights of men who have sex with men and transgender people. ”

According to Anand Grover, Director of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS Unit and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, “there have been a number of success stories in the region which give us hope. Courts in Nepal, India and Pakistan have been instrumental in recognizing and upholding the rights of sexual minorities. This means that they will no longer be considered criminals in accessing life-saving prevention, care and treatment services. We hope that other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and across the globe will follow suit.”

Community representatives and activists note in order to effectively overcome legal barriers and remove punitive laws, it is critical to build robust strategic alliances across traditional and non-traditional constituencies and between groups of people living with HIV and other key populations, women’s groups, affected communities, service providers, the legal profession, law enforcement agencies, human rights bodies, parliamentarians and policy makers.

The momentum for reversing the tide of punitive laws, policies and practices must be sustained for HIV prevention, treatment, care and support to be effective. And in the context of a global financial and economic crisis, it is both cost-effective and a moral imperative to implement legal and social programmes which counter discrimination and stigmatization.

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