HIV criminalisation cases recorded in 72 countries, including 49 in the last four years

Disproportionate number of cases in Belarus, the Czech Republic and New Zealand

HIV criminalisation continues: a global review has found that HIV-related arrests, investigations, prosecutions and convictions have ever occurred in at least 72 countries, with recent cases occurring in 49 countries, including 14 in which the law appeared to be applied for the first time.

The HIV Justice Network’s review concerns cases in which either the criminal or similar law is applied to people living with HIV based on HIV-positive status, either via HIV-specific criminal statutes (29 countries), general criminal or similar laws (37 countries), or both (6 countries). Such laws typically criminalise non-disclosure of HIV status to a sexual partner, potential or perceived exposure to HIV, or transmission of HIV.

HIV criminalisation “is a pervasive illustration of how state-sponsored stigma and discrimination works against a marginalised group of people with immutable characteristics,” says HIV Justice Network. “As well as being a human rights issue of global concern, HIV criminalisation is a barrier to universal access to HIV prevention, testing, treatment and care.”

Between October 2015 and December 2018, at least 913 people living with HIV were arrested, prosecuted, convicted or acquitted in 49 countries. The largest numbers of cases were reported in the Russian Federation (at least 314 cases), Belarus (249), United States (158), Ukraine (29), Canada (27), Zimbabwe (16), Czech Republic (15), United Kingdom (13), France (12) and Taiwan (11).

To estimate where the criminal law appears to be disproportionately applied, the researchers analysed the number of known recent cases according to the estimated number of diagnosed people living with HIV in a country. They identified 15 criminalisation hotspots: countries in which the number of cases was equal to or greater than 0.5 in 10,000 per capita of diagnosed individuals.

  • Belarus (139 in 10,000)
  • Czech Republic (55 in 10,000)
  • New Zealand (10 in 10,000)
  • Canada (4 in 10,000)
  • Sweden (4 in 10,000)
  • Russian Federation (3 in 10,000)
  • Taiwan (3 in 10,000)
  • Ukraine (2 in 10,000)
  • Australia (2 in 10,000)
  • Switzerland (2 in 10,000)
  • England and Wales (1 in 10,000)
  • Kazakhstan (1 in 10,000)
  • United States (1 in 10,000)
  • France (0.8 in 10,000)
  • Italy (0.5 in 10,000)

Their analysis suggests that recent HIV criminalisation cases do not reflect the demographics of local epidemics, with the likelihood of prosecution exacerbated by discrimination against marginalised populations on the basis of drug use, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, immigration status, sex work and/or sexuality. Cases in the United States also appear to disproportionately impact people already in the purview of the criminal justice system, such as prisoners, and people living in poverty, including homeless people, with a high number of cases related to ‘HIV exposure’ via biting or spitting during arrest or whilst incarcerated. Find out more in our About HIV pages

Recent reports of increased numbers of cases in sub-Saharan Africa and in Eastern Europe and Central Asia illustrate what advocates have long-feared: that women are more likely to be prosecuted (and less likely to have adequate legal representation), since they are often the first in a relationship to know their status as a result of routine HIV testing during pregnancy, and are less likely to be able to safely disclose their HIV-positive status to their partner due to gendered power inequalities. Women with HIV also face the possibility of being prosecuted for passing HIV on to their child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

In addition, migrants from high HIV prevalence regions (such as sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Europe) appear to be disproportionately prosecuted in Canada, northern and western Europe and Australasia, and usually have limited access to adequate legal representation. Non-citizens are also likely to be deported to their country of origin after serving their sentence even if they have family ties in their adopted country.

HIV-specific laws continue to exist in at least 75 countries, including many countries in sub-Saharan Africa (29 countries) and eastern Europe and Central Asia (18).

Cameron S & Bernard EJ. Advancing HIV Justice 3: Growing the global movement against HIV criminalisation. HIV Justice Network, Amsterdam, May 2019. (Report).

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