Helen Clark: Launch of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law

24 Jun 2010

Remarks by Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme
On the Occasion of the Launch of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law
Thursday 24 June 2010, Geneva

Thank you all for being here today for the launch of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

UNDP is proud to have led the formation of this Commission on behalf of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), working in close collaboration with the UNAIDS Secretariat.

Over the last decade, impressive progress has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Since 2001, global rates of new HIV infections have decreased by 17 per cent. In just five years there has been a ten-fold increase in those with access to antiretroviral therapy in low- and middle-income countries.

There have also been advances in tackling stigma and discrimination. Many leaders have spoken about openly about HIV, what drives its spread, and how to combat it.

It has also become increasingly clear that successes in responding to HIV can only reach the required scale if they are underpinned by legal, regulatory and social environments which advance human rights, gender equality, and social justice goals.

Enabling legal frameworks do contribute to promoting access to HIV-related information and services, and to mitigating the causes and consequences of HIV.

In many countries laws have ensured access to life-sustaining anti-retroviral treatment. This has positive benefits for affected individuals and their families, and for society at large as transmission rates are reduced and the ability to deal with the consequences of HIV is improved. 

Where laws have guaranteed equal inheritance and property for women and girls, it has helped to mitigate the social and economic burden caused by HIV/AIDS.

Sadly, however, in many places social and legal challenges to human rights are undermining efforts to achieve universal access to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care, and support.

There are still far too many accounts of where the law has an adverse impact on people’s lives.

Every day, stigma and discrimination in all their forms bear down on women and men living with HIV/AIDS, including sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, and transgender people.

Many individuals most at risk of HIV infection have been left in the shadows and marginalized, rather than being openly and usefully engaged.

While the number of countries with specific laws to protect people living with HIV from discrimination has increased since 2003, one third of countries still lack them. 

Where they do exist, such laws often are not enforced.

In many countries effective HIV responses are also undermined by broad criminalization of HIV transmission and exposure and of other behaviours and practices. 

Numerous studies, from all regions, have catalogued the consequences of repressive legal environments, including the impediments to scaling up HIV services; lower uptake of HIV prevention services; reduced self-esteem; increased risk behaviours; and discriminatory health services.

There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence, and an ever increasing body of documentation, on human rights abuses stemming from punitive laws, policies, practices, stigma, and discrimination. We need now to move from anecdote to evidence on the impact of these abuses on HIV, public health, and development outcomes.

That evidence will help advance effective HIV/AIDS responses and generate political will to bring about the needed changes.

This is where the Commission we are launching today comes in. It is charged with developing actionable and evidence-informed recommendations for effective HIV/AIDS responses which respect the human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and those most vulnerable to it. The Commission will focus on some of the most challenging legal issues in the context of HIV, including the criminalization of HIV/AIDS transmission, and of behaviours and practices such as drug use, sex work, and same-sex sexual relations.

The Commission, comprised of eminent leaders from public life around the globe, is expected to meet three times between October 2010 and December 2011.

A Technical Advisory Group to the Commissioners has been established. It is comprised of leading experts on HIV/AIDS, public health, human rights, and the law. It will advise on how to generate and build consensus around the evidence base. The Technical Advisory Group is co-chaired by Hon. Michael Kirby (Australia) and Mr. Allehone Mulugeta Abebe (Ethiopia).

Regional hearings in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe will ensure that the Commission hears from affected communities and policy-makers.

Our world has lived with HIV/AIDS for several decades now. To combat it more effectively, we will have to target our interventions and make wise use of limited resources.

Preventing and controlling HIV/AIDS is the interests of us all. It is a disease which knows no geographical boundaries, nor those of class or gender, or ethnicity or sexual orientation. To halt and reverse its spread, we need rational responses which shrug off the yoke of prejudice and stigma.

We need responses which are built on the solid foundations of equality and dignity for all, and which protect and promote the rights of those who are living with HIV/AIDS and those who are typically marginalized.

It is my hope that the Global Commission on HIV and the Law will recommend best practice in law and policy to help societies to minimize HIV-related risks and vulnerabilities.

It is also my hope that the Commission will provide a clarion call to action on addressing the enduring legal and human rights challenges which have impeded the HIV/AIDS response over the last three decades.