Feature story

Concern over Criminalization of HIV Transmission

06 November 2007

Justice Edwin Cameron, Supreme Court of
Appeal, South Africa highlighted the
importance of public health strategies as an
alternative to the criminalization of HIV

Several countries have recently introduced laws to criminalise HIV transmission, or exposing another person to the virus. A number of jurisdictions have used general laws against serious bodily harm in cases where someone is accused of knowingly transmitting HIV or willingly exposing others to HIV transmission.

Subject of controversy, these measures are sparking debate and concern among policymakers, legal and public health professionals, international organizations and civil society, on whether criminal law is applicable in such cases and if such application is accomplishing or damaging public health goals such as universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Addressing these issues, UNAIDS brought together a range of stakeholders in Geneva for a three-day international consultation (31 October – 2 November) to discuss the apparent trend of criminalization of HIV transmission in the context of national responses to AIDS.

The purpose of the consultation, co-hosted by the UNAIDS Secretariat and UNDP, was to foster dialogue and provide an opportunity to reach an understanding of what constitutes appropriate application of criminal law to HIV transmission, if at all, given public health and human rights imperatives. Participants in the meeting included parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, criminal law experts, civil society representatives and people living with HIV, alongside representatives of WHO, ILO and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Consultation participants expressed concern about the apparent rise in the number of cases in which people living with HIV have been criminally charged for transmitting HIV, or engaging in acts that risk transmitting HIV. In some cases, criminal charges have been laid for conduct that is “perceived” as risking transmission, but where no real risk exists, and sometimes with very harsh penalties imposed. Participants also expressed concern that there are jurisdictions moving to enact or amend legislation specifically to criminalize transmission and exposure. While noting that many legislators may be acting out of good intentions, consultation participants stated clearly that such laws are not an effective way of dealing with the transmission of HIV.

“Like in the early years of the epidemic when I declared that we have now ‘HIL – Highly Inefficient Laws’, when there were the proposals for testing everyone in society, we now have a new wave of HIL. And it’s a wave that’s coming particularly in Africa, but also in other parts of the world,” stated Justice Michael Kirby, judge in the High Court of Australia, in the concluding session of the consultation.

While little is known about the impacts of criminalizing HIV transmission, many are concerned that it may have a negative impact on the uptake of HIV testing and access to HIV prevention, treatment and care services. Sensational media reports can exacerbate stigma and discrimination, and jeopardize HIV prevention strategies currently in place. “Applying criminal law to HIV transmission has a heightened role in stigmatizing HIV, it is ineffective and public health strategies are better used to advance HIV prevention,” said Justice Edwin Cameron, Supreme Court of Appeal, South Africa.

Furthermore, there is also concern that criminal proceedings may compromise basic civil rights such as the right to privacy, especially among the most vulnerable populations. Some legislators and women’s rights groups think such laws will protect women from HIV infection, but as Susan Timberlake, UNAIDS Human Rights and Law Advisor noted, “There is great concern that in fact these laws would hurt women most, as it is women who first find out their status and thus will be first subject to prosecution.  Laws to ensure women’s equality inside and outside marriage would protect them more than laws criminalizing HIV transmission.”

Recommendations from the meeting will inform the finalization of UNAIDS’ policy position and other guidance documents on the criminalization of HIV transmission. “A clear message from the meeting was that criminal law is a very blunt tool to deal with HIV,” said Seema Paul, UNAIDS Chief of Policy Coordination. “The real goal of policy makers is preventing new infections but, in fact, criminalizing HIV transmission – excepting in a very small sub-set of cases dealing with retributive justice – will create disincentives for learning about one’s HIV status and accessing health and other services,” she added.


Read remarks by Edwin Cameron, Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa
Read more on HIV and the law


Listen to Rama Valayden, Attorney General and Minister of Justice & Human Rights, Republic of Mauritius (mp3, 3.1 Mb)
Listen to Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeal, South Africa (mp3, 1.9 Mb)

Related documents:

International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights
Criminal Law, Public Health and HIV Transmission: a policy options paper
Handbook for Legislators on HIV/AIDS, Law and Human Rights
Report on the ARASA/OSISA Civil Society Consultative Meeting on the Criminalisation of the Wilful Transmission of HIV
Legal Aspects of HIV/AIDS - A Guide for Legal and Policy Reform

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