Activists are hoping that the upcoming international AIDS conference in Vienna will make a real impact on the plight of minorities, including LGBT people, facing barriers to treatment.

With its theme of “Rights Here, Right Now,” the conference, which opens in Vienna on July 18, will bring together more than 25,000 scientists, government leaders, and AIDS activists from around the world to examine the successes and shortcomings of the global AIDS response.

“The conference is about HIV/AIDS and human rights,” said Joe Amon, director of health and human rights at the New York based Human Rights Watch. “But with 3 million new HIV infections each year, talking about rights won’t do the job. We need action and accountability.”

Advances in science and medicine will have limited impact without changing the harmful laws and policies that drive people who are at risk away from HIV testing and prevention, and that make it hard for those who need treatment to get it, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the organisation, laws in more than 160 countries criminalise specific groups or behaviours. These include laws targeting sex workers, drug users, men who have sex with men, and HIV exposure or transmission.

“Governments need to end discriminatory laws and misguided and abusive public health and criminal justice policies,” Amon said. “These laws fuel stigma and discrimination, increase the risk of HIV, and prevent HIV/AIDS services from reaching the most vulnerable populations.”

In particular, governments and international donors need to address the transmission of HIV through drug injection, Human Rights Watch said.

Outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, as many as one-third of all new HIV infections occur among people who inject drugs. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, injection drug use is increasing. In some countries, in particular Central and Eastern Europe and East Asia, statistics show that injection drug use is the primary driver of HIV epidemics.

In some countries, harm reduction measures, including opioid substitution therapy with methadone or buprenorphine and needle and syringe exchange, have virtually eliminated new HIV transmission due to drug use. Yet these lifesaving measures remain largely unavailable to the vast majority of people who need them, Human Rights Watch said.

“People who use drugs do not forfeit their human rights,” Amon said. “All individuals have a human right to obtain lifesaving health services without fear of punishment or discrimination.”

Human Rights Watch has called on delegates to the conference to ensure that policy and legal reform are accompanied by the expansion of services for vulnerable populations not yet reached in the AIDS fight.

“Governments around the world have pledged universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care by 2010,” Amon said. “2010 is right now. Unless we reach everyone who needs HIV services, the progress that has been made fighting AIDS will be squandered.”


  • Since 2005, 14 African countries have passed HIV-specific laws that potentially criminalise all sexual behaviour among HIV-positive individuals, including those who use condoms, regardless of disclosure and actual risk of transmission.

  • In Zambia, efforts to include men who have sex with men in HIV testing and treatment programs and efforts to introduce condoms and other harm reduction measures in prison are seriously hindered by laws criminalising consensual homosexual conduct among adults.

  • In Uganda, a proposed law introduced in May would criminalise “attempted transmission” and require mandatory testing of pregnant women and forced disclosure of HIV status. These provisions threaten people living with HIV by exposing them to stigma, discrimination, and physical violence.

  • In Senegal, calls to decriminalise same-sex relations intensified in January 2009 when nine HIV/AIDS advocates were sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “indecent and unnatural acts” and “forming associations of criminals.” The ruling had a chilling effect on organisations addressing HIV/AIDS in Senegal, especially those working with men who have sex with men and other marginalised populations.

  • In Kenya, where homosexual conduct is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, violent attacks in 2010 against suspected homosexuals – including at a government health centre providing HIV/AIDS services to men who have sex with men – have undermined HIV outreach and services to this vulnerable population.

  • In many Asian countries – such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – hundreds of thousands of people identified as drug users are detained in locked facilities for months, or even years, without trial or due process, in the name of drug “treatment” or “rehabilitation.”

    Detainees – among them children, many housed alongside adults – face torture and extreme physical cruelty, including electric shocks, sexual violence, and beatings with electrical wire. They are often forced to work long hours for below-market wages, beaten if they fail to meet work quotas, and subject to solitary confinement for violating centre rules.

  • Less than 40 countries provide medication-assisted therapy to prisoners and they often restrict it to those who have been receiving such treatment prior to incarceration.

  • Only 10 countries provide needle and syringe exchange in prison, despite numerous recommendations from the UN and clear evidence that such programs can work safely and effectively in prisons.

  • In the United States, at least 20 percent of people with HIV have a history of incarceration. One in five incarcerated people is there for drug-related crimes and many others are incarcerated for crimes committed to support a drug habit. Yet most prisoners have no access to comprehensive harm reduction services.

  • In Zambia, poor conditions of confinement and minimal medical care for prisoners expose them to HIV and tuberculosis, including difficult-to-treat and potentially drug resistant strains, threatening the lives and health of inmates and the general public.

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