What does the word phenom mean?  Well, as the shortened form of phenomenon, it refers to “a person or thing of outstanding abilities or qualities.”

     However, when applied to HIV criminalization, it takes on an entirely different understanding or subtext, which is ominous…and dangerous.  You see, a new report by the HIV Justice Network and the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) has just concluded, “HIV criminalization is a growing, global phenomenon that is seldom given the attention it deserves considering its impact on both public health and human rights, undermining the HIV response.”

     Entitled “Advancing HIV Justice 2: Building Momentum in Global Advocacy Against HIV Criminalization,” the report covers the period between April 2013 and September 2015.

     But first:  just what is HIV criminalization? The Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) states that it is “the application of the criminal law to people living with HIV based solely on their HIV status.  This happens through HIV-specific criminal statutes, or by applying general criminal laws that allow for prosecution of unintentional HIV transmission, potential or perceived exposure to HIV without transmission, and/or non-disclosure of known HIV-positive status.”

HIV CRIM 2016 3     According to the organization, criminal laws used against HIV-positive individuals impact entire communities. Additionally, these statutes perpetuate discrimination and stigma—not to mention fear, shame and anger directed at those living with the virus.

     “These laws and prosecutions do not only impact the people investigated, prosecuted, or incarcerated.  These laws undermine core sexual rights and public health principles,” states Julian Hows of GNP+.  “Their existence and application exacerbate racial and gender inequalities and jeopardize critical HIV prevention and service delivery efforts.” 

     The following are highlights of the report:

  • Seventy-two countries have adopted laws that specifically allow for HIV criminalization, either because the law is HIV-specific, or because it names the virus as one—or more—of the diseases covered by the law. When the HIV criminalization laws in 30 of the United States are counted individually, this total rises to 101 jurisdictions. 
  • Sixty-one countries now report prosecutions for HIV nondisclosure, potential or perceived exposure, and/or unintentional transmission.This number increases to 105 when individual states (in America) and Australian territories are counted separately.  And of the 61 countries, 26 applied HIV criminalization statutes, 32 applied general criminal or public health laws, and three—Australia, Denmark and U.S.—applied both HIV criminalization and general laws.
  • From April 2013 to October 2015, the highest number of prosecutions were reported in the following countries:Russia (at least 115); U.S. (at least 104); Belarus (at least 20); Canada (at least 17); France (at least 7); Italy, United Kingdom (at least 6 each); Australia, Germany (at least 5 each).   

     GNP+ adds, “Of particular concern is the fact that 30 sub-Saharan African countries have now enacted overly broad and/or vague HIV specific statues enabling legal repercussions against people living with HIV.” 

     And, the organization emphasizes, “The trend is in contrast with the latest science which shows that people with HIV who adhere to HIV treatment and have an undetectable viral load are not infectious.  In addition, this approach of the criminal law violates key legal and human rights principles.”

     However—and fortunately—there is a bright side, according to the report. “Important and promising developments in case law, law reform and policy have taken place in many jurisdictions, most of which came about as a direct result of advocacy from individuals and organizations working to end the inappropriate use of the criminal law to regulate and punish people living with HIV.”