December 01, 2016

Transforming the Global AIDS Response through Rule of Law Integration

Today, as the international community unites in observing World AIDS Day with a renewed commitment to ending the epidemic by 2030, historic buildings and iconic landmarks around the world will once again light up red, sending a powerful reminder that getting to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths is a shared responsibility of all.

There are nearly 37 million people living with HIV (PLHIV) worldwide and more than one million people die every year of AIDS. Despite remarkable progress in addressing the epidemic in recent years, the world is currently off track in reaching the target of fewer than 500,000 new HIV infections by 2020. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) attributes it, in part, to significant problems with HIV prevention, particularly among key populations who experience unique vulnerabilities to HIV and remain at a much higher risk of HIV infection than people in the general population. These groups include gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who use drugs and people under state custody.

The HIV epidemic is exacerbated by widespread HIV-related discrimination, which hampers prevention efforts, impedes development, undermines good governance objectives and erodes the rule of law. HIV-related discrimination is often entrenched in national laws, policies and repressive policing practices targeting PLHIV and key populations. Along with other structural determinants of health, such as poverty or gender-based and bias-motivated violence, these punitive laws, policies and practices contribute to the HIV risk environment and block effective responses to the epidemic.

The international community has recognized that eliminating HIV-related discrimination and embracing a human rights-based approach to HIV and AIDS are absolutely critical to curbing the spread of the epidemic. When PLHIV and key populations enjoy equality in their private and public lives, they are more likely to seek testing, receive counseling and maintain treatment regimens. Conversely, stigma and discrimination force people underground and increase their vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.

The law and the legal profession can be powerful allies in the global response to HIV. For example, good laws and effective rule of law programs can widen access to essential HIV services and commodities, enhance social support for people affected by the epidemic, protect PLHIV from discrimination on the basis of health status and provide effective legal remedies for violations of human rights.

To facilitate rule of law programming and technical legal assistance in the context of HIV and AIDS, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) developed an HIV/AIDS Legal Assessment Tool — a mechanism for assessing countries’ de jure and de facto compliance with international legal standards on the protection of human rights of people living with, perceived to be living with and affected by HIV. The primary focus of the tool is discrimination against PLHIV in public and private life. In addition, the tool devotes a separate section of its analytical framework to key populations and addresses the rights of HIV advocates and service workers.

The HIV/AIDS Legal Assessment Tool is uniquely equipped not only to uncover the incidence of HIV-related discrimination but also to address such questions as to whether a country’s legal system is sufficiently strong to eliminate HIV-related discrimination and whether the government has committed appropriate resources and taken concrete steps to ensure the rights of PLHIV and key populations. Interventions implemented by civil society and international organizations are also taken into account.

Qualitative studies based on ABA ROLI’s assessment tools, including the HIV/AIDS Legal Assessment Tool, are complex legal and factual inquiries into the countries’ efforts to advance the rule of law and promote human rights. These tools can help design and prioritize reforms, programs and other interventions; springboard community-based initiatives and government capacity-building efforts; promote critical dialogue and information sharing between local stakeholders and the development community; and help enhance inter-agency collaboration and international cooperation. In the case of the HIV/AIDS Legal Assessment Tool, the ultimate goal is to protect the rights of and achieve better health outcomes for PLHIV and key populations.

An AIDS-free generation is within our reach but achieving it by the target date will require extraordinary efforts by a wide range of stakeholders, including the legal profession which is uniquely equipped to address prevalent discrimination and injustice faced by PLHIV and key populations. There is no doubt that the end of the epidemic will only be possible if public health programs that address HIV and AIDS are integrated and coherently managed with initiatives directed at strengthening the rule of law and promoting human rights. For this to occur, rule of law integration and broad multisectoral collaboration must be viewed as integral components of the global AIDS response.

To learn more about our work with HIV/AIDS, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org