International pressure mounts against 'harmful' HIV/AIDS bill
The UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, Elizabeth Mataka, has added her voice to growing criticism of a Ugandan bill that would criminalize the deliberate transmission of HIV. The draft HIV Prevention and Control Bill (2008) is intended to provide a legal framework for the national response to HIV, as well as protect the rights of individuals affected by HIV. However, certain provisions within the bill - such as criminalizing the wilful transmission of HIV and punishing it with the death penalty - have been heavily criticised by human rights activists who claim they would only serve to increase stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.
"I emphasise the importance of creating a social environment conducive for HIV prevention and to refrain from laws that criminalize the transmission of HIV and stigmatize certain groups in the population," Mataka told journalists in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on 2 December. "These laws can only fuel the epidemic further and undermine an effective response to HIV." Her comments follow a recent letter from the Champions for an HIV-Free Generation - a group of former African presidents and other influential personalities - signed by its chairman, former Botswana president Festus Mogae, urging Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to stop the prevention and control bill and a draft Anti-Homosexuality Bill (2009) from becoming law.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, but the new bill would create the crime of "aggravated homosexuality", where the death penalty can be imposed when the offender is HIV-positive or has sex with anyone under 18 or disabled. People accused under this clause would also be forced to undergo an HIV test. AIDS activists say the bill would push men who have sex with men underground, making it even harder for them to access HIV services.
"I write to you to express our views regarding two Bills being considered in your country, which could impact negatively on HIV prevention efforts and services directed at the most vulnerable populations," the letter said. "Action by both government and individual leaders of stature like yourself can create environments that promote HIV prevention efforts and behaviour change." The President is the final signatory on bills that have been passed by parliament. "We humbly ask that you take action to halt the harmful provisions in the draft Bills cited in this letter, and by doing so, preserve the rights of all Ugandans," it added.
In a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, Eric Goosby, head of the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, expressed concern over the anti-homosexuality bill. "I'm very concerned about any decision that any country would make to target a group that's in the population, and that's always been in the population, by excluding them from a service or passes legislation that criminalizes their behaviour," he said. "Every time you do that, you push the behaviour underground. It never works. Rather than minimizing the spread of the virus, it actually amplifies it."
Local civil society organizations have welcomed the international support. "The letter from another president shows that this issue is not only a concern of the civil society in Uganda but it is also an international concern," said Lydia Mungherera, an HIV activist working with national NGO, The AIDS Support Organisation. "Maybe the letter will help us have an effect on the decision President Museveni takes." Museveni has not commented on either the letter from Mogae or the recommendations by Mataka, but senior government officials, including health minister Stephen Mallinga and Jesse Kagimba, senior presidential adviser on HIV/AIDS, have expressed their support for the bill.
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