Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is HIV criminalisation?

HIV criminalisation describes the unjust application of the criminal or similar laws (such as public health, civil and/or administrative law) to people living with HIV based on their HIV status.

HIV criminalisation is a growing, global phenomenon that is seldom given the attention it deserves considering its impact on both public health and human rights, undermining the HIV response.

Q: What behaviours are targeted by these laws?

In many instances, HIV criminalisation laws are exceedingly broad – either in their explicit wording, or in the way they have been interpreted and applied – making people living with HIV (and those perceived by authorities to be at risk of HIV) extremely vulnerable to a wide range of human rights violations.

HIV criminalisation takes place either using HIV-specific criminal statutes, or by applying general criminal laws exclusively or disproportionately against people with HIV.

Usually these laws are used to prosecute individuals aware they are living with HIV who allegedly did not disclose their HIV status prior to sexual relations (HIV non-disclosure); are perceived to have potentially exposed others to HIV (HIV exposure); or thought to have transmitted HIV (HIV transmission).

In many countries a person living with HIV who is found guilty of other ‘crimes’ – notably, but not exclusively, sex work, as well someone who spits at or bites law enforcement personnel during their arrest or whilst incarcerated – often faces enhanced sentencing even when HIV exposure or transmission was not possible or was – at most – a very small risk.

Q: How widespread is HIV criminalisation?

We estimate that 72 countries have adopted laws that specifically allow for HIV criminalisation, while prosecutions for HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission have been reported in at least 60 countries.

Q: How does HIV criminalisation impact human rights?

There is a growing body of evidence that HIV criminalisation impacts the human rights of people living with HIV, who are often also members of other marginalised, stigmatised and/or criminalised communities, because of:

  • selective and/or arbitrary investigations/prosecutions that have a disproportionate impact on racial and sexual minorities, and on women.
  • confusion and  fear over obligations under the law;
  • the use of threats of allegations triggering prosecution as a means of abuse or
    retaliation against a current or former partner living with HIV;
  • improper and insensitive police investigations that can result in inappropriate
    disclosure, leading to high levels of distress and in some instances, to
    loss of employment and housing, social ostracism, deportation (and hence
    also possibly loss of access to adequate medical care in some instances)
    for migrants living with HIV in some cases;
  • limited access to justice, including as a result of inadequately informed and competent legal representation;
  • sentencing and penalties that are often vastly disproportionate to any potential or realised harm, including lengthy terms of imprisonment, lifetime or years-long
    designation as a sex offender (with all the negative consequences for
    employment, housing, social stigma, etc.);
  • Stigmatising media reporting, including names, addresses and photographs of people with HIV, including those not yet found guilty of any crime but merely subject to allegations.

Q: How does HIV criminalisation impact the HIV response?

HIV criminalisation is at odds with public health objectives, such as UNAIDS’ 90-90-90 goals.

A growing body of evidence suggests that fear of prosecution may deter people, especially those from communities highly vulnerable to acquiring HIV, from getting tested and knowing their status, because many laws only apply for those who are aware of their positive HIV status.

HIV criminalisation can also deter access to HIV care and treatment, undermining counselling and the relationship between people living with HIV and healthcare professionals because medical records can be used as evidence in court.

Q: What is HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE?

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE is a global campaign to abolish criminal and similar laws, policies and practices that regulate, control and punish people living with HIV based on their HIV-positive status.

We believe that this HIV criminalisation is discriminatory, a violation of human rights, undermines public health, and is detrimental to individual health and well-being.

HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE exists to shape the discourse on HIV criminalisation as well as share information and resources, network, build capacity, mobilise advocacy, and cultivate a community of transparency and collaboration.

Read about our mission and the values and principles guiding our work.

Q: Who can join HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE?

National, regional, and international organisations working on HIV criminalisation who believe that HIV criminalisation is discriminatory, a violation of human rights, undermines public health, and is detrimental to individual health and well-being, who endorse our values and principles, and want to help eradicate the criminalisation of people living with HIV can join HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE. Individuals are unable to join HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE but can sign up to our newsletter here.

Q: What organisations are eligible to be invited to join the Steering Committee?

Additional members of the Steering Committee will be invited to join by the current members of the Steering Committee, based on our common shared values and principles and the following criteria:

  • The majority of Steering Committee member organisations should have people living with HIV on their board and in senior leadership roles within the organisation.
  • All Steering Committee member organisations must demonstrate/evidence their organisation’s commitment to working on HIV criminalisation.
  • Preference will be given to organisations/networks working globally and/or regionally, although membership from national organisations/networks working in countries where HIV criminalisation is a major issue will be considered.

Although the Steering Committee drives the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE campaign, we welcome ad hoc or ongoing collaboration(s) with other groups/networks/organisations on specific projects and actions, including with organisations that are not eligible to be part of the Steering Committee but would like to play a more active role in the campaign.

Further reading