XVIII International AIDS Conference

Leaders against Criminalization of Sex Work, Sodomy, Drug Use or Possession, and HIV Transmission THSY06

Symposium Back
Location: SR 4
Schedule: 14:30 - 16:00, 22.07.2010
Code: THSY06
Chair: Stephen Lewis, Canada

In the past year, international leaders have spoken out about the need to include the removal of punitive laws, and the decriminalization of certain behaviors, as a critical strategy to HIV prevention. In this session, national and international leaders actively engaged in efforts to decriminalize sex work, sodomy and drug use/possession, and oppose the criminalization of HIV transmission, will discuss why they have taken on decriminalization as an HIV prevention issue, how they have addressed opposition to
decriminalization efforts, and how politicians can best be engaged in decriminalization efforts. Delegates will leave this session with clearly framed arguments for decriminalization as an HIV prevention strategy and specific arguments for decriminalizing of sex work, sodomy and drug use/ possession, and against criminalization of HIV transmission. The session will conclude with a call for decriminalization.

Presentations in this session:


Slides with audio
Panel discussion
Stephen Lewis, Canada

Slides with audio


Slides with audio
Statements against criminalization

Slides with audio
Panel discussion
Gontebanye Festus Mogae, Botswana
João Goulão, Portugal
Tim Barnett, New Zealand
Michel Sidibé, Switzerland
Gill Greer, United Kingdom

Slides with audio
Questions and answers

Slides with audio
Public call against criminalization
Presented by Stephen Lewis, Canada

Slides with audio

Rapporteur reports

LAPC report by Rich McKay

 Stephen Lewis moderated the session, hosting panellists Michel Sidibé (Switzerland), João Goulão (Portugal), Tim Barnett (New Zealand), Gill Greer (United Kingdom) and Gontebanye Festus Mogae (Botswana).  


In his opening remarks, Lewis  remarked on the recent creation of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the fact that Canada stands second only to the United States in the criminal prosecution of HIV transmission, and that an entirely new jurisprudence had emerged in some countries, creating a system of laws intended to prevent the transmission of HIV but which in fact penalize the most vulnerable groups. MS called for an end of efforts to criminalize sex work, sodomy, drug use or possession, and HIV transmission, interventions which are contradicted by evidence, and only serve to inflame the epidemic.  


JG presented results from a study which examined the effects of decriminalizing drug use in Portugal.  At the end of the twentieth century, Portugal had one of the highest prevalence of problematic drug use in Europe, and the decision was made, after a great deal of consultation, to decriminalize drug use in 2001.  Although it was still not legal to take drugs, people who did so were no longer dealt with by the criminal system.  JG presented also data which showed increased HIV notifications, decreasing IV drug use, and less overall drug use by teenagers resulting from decriminalization.  He suggested that drug users should be seen as ‘sick persons’ in need of medical treatment.  Said GG of decriminalization, ‘It’s a simplistic approach to a highly complex set of issues...Criminalization does not recognize the complexity of vulnerability.’  She further added, ‘When morality gets in the way of policy, the result is too often morbidity and mortality.’  


GG highlighted the success of New Zealand’s experience of decriminalization, as well as the power of a sexual rights approach to drive successful evidence-based HIV interventions.  TB outlined the key steps and arguments adopted to bring about the change in legislation required in New Zealand, emphasizing that it can be done, it is the right thing to do, and it works.  He also highlighted the key phrase of the New Zealand legislation: ‘consensual sexual contact between adults in private is legal’.  GFM thanked the panellists for presenting ‘incontrovertible’ evidence that decriminalization works.  He pointed out that there is an overwhelming desire in Southern Africa to focus on prevention, and that this is dependent on individuals knowing their status.  Thus, criminalization is counterproductive, prevents people from seeking their status, and is incredibly damaging.  ‘I advocate decriminalization,’ he said, and added that he was lobbying his former presidential colleagues to encourage them to adopt this view too.

Lewis lamented the refusal by countries like Uganda and Canada to consider evidence in their responses to HIV.  In response to questions from the audience, GG suggested that governments need to be pressed to enforce the laws they have passed about protecting human rights and preventing discrimination.  TB suggested that it was often police practice, and not simply the law, that leads to many of the problems encountered by sex workers.  MS suggested that pressure needed to be brought upon countries who receive funding and which do not use evidence in their approaches, both from within and without.  He also suggested that UNAIDS was working with national governments to equip them to open a dialogue on these matters.  In his closing remarks, SL introduced a declaration which urged leaders to renounce criminalization as a response to HIV.

CPC report by Ernest HOPKINS


• Stephen Lewis: Moderator
• Gill Greer, Director General, International Planned Parenthood Federation, UK
• Michel Sidibe, Executive Director, UNAIDS, Switzerland 
• Tim Barnett, Global Programme Manager, World AIDS Campaign, South Africa
• Joao Goulao, National Drug Coordinator and Chairman, Portuguese Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal
• Festus Mogae, Chairman, Champions for an AIDS Free Generation, Botswana
In this packed symposium, 5 world leaders including a former president of Botswana in Festus Mogae spoke forcefully against laws that would criminalize sex work, homosexuality, drug use or non-willful transmission of HIV. These strong statements of opposition come at a time when an increasing number of countries are proposing or adopting laws that criminalize HIV transmission, sex work, and homosexuality. Punitive measures against drug users are also on the rise. The take home message from all is that criminalization legislation that attempts to dictate or control behaviors that are ideologically or socially unacceptable to some, doesn’t work because it stigmatizes and marginalizes the most vulnerable in society, making them fearful to access HIV prevention or care services, endangering their health and the health of those with whom they engage in sexual activity. Criminalization deters the most at risk from seeking information about their HIV status. Willful transmission of HIV is hard to prove but hostile environments can promote bias that weights the system against individuals living with HIV.
Joao provided data from Portugal that explained the reasons that Portugal has decided to treat drug addicts as sick people and not as criminals. This shift in policy has resulted in a significant reduction in the percentage of drug users living with HIV. Both Gill and Tim were key players in passage of the New Zealand law that decriminalized sex workers. Both stressed the importance of mobilized community in that successful effort. New Zealand has a strong Sex Worker Collective that successfully engaged the media with evidence that the law was cost effective and would actually save money.  The issue of law enforcement disregarding protective policies and imposing their own biases through harsh treatment of LBGT people, PLWHIV, and sex workers was discussed. All agreed that the Human Rights framework is the unifying call for the global community to address these issues.
Festus, as a former head of state, discussed his efforts to move policy makers at the highest levels through formal and informal communication to provide the evidence that punitive legislation is counterproductive to their goals of creating healthy societies.
The Q&A session included a spirited discussion and criticism, by Stephen Lewis, of the Secretary General of the United Nations about the recently established Commission on Women at the UN and the lack of transparency regarding its leadership recruitment, program objectives, civil society involvement, actual annual funding levels and targets.

Track F report by Damon BARRETT

 ‘Leaders against criminalisation of sex work, sodomy, drug use or possession, and HIV transmission’ brought together an international panel of high profile political, civil society and UN speakers to call for the decriminalisation of a range of criminalised and stigmatised behaviours. The panel included:

Stephen Lewis –Founder of  AIDS Free World

Festus Mogae – Former President of Botswana and Chair of Champions for HIV Free Generation Botswana

Joao Gulao – National Drugs Co-Ordinator, Portugal

Tim Barnett – Global Programme Manager, World AIDS Campaign

Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of UNAIDS

Gill Greer – Director General, IPPF

Michel Sidibe put the case clearly:  “Criminalisation does not work!” if we want to tackle the pidemic we must decriminalise at risk groups.

Joao Goulao, National Drugs Co-Ordinator of Portugal took participants through the decision making process that led to Portugal’s decriminalisation of drug use and possession .He also showed statistical analysis relating to benefits in terms of reductions in injecting drug use, reductions in HIV transmission among drug users, and reductions in drug use among young people.

Gill Greer, in an excellent speech focused on sexual rights and sex workers. She relayed the power of having a transgender former sex worker as a member of parliament and how that was crucial to the passing of New Zealand’s law decriminalising sex work. This was followed by Tim Barnett, who was then a member of parliament in New Zealand who gave more background information into the decision making process. Consensual sexual relations between consenting adults in private in New Zealand is legal – only in a legal framework of decriminalisation can that happen.

Former President Mogae focused on criminalisation of HIV transmission and called for an end to a policy that fuels the epidemic and puts women at greater risk. According to Mogae it is worse than futile, it is a minus!

From the floor there were many questions. The United Nations took centre stage, however, with concerns about donors funding countries that use the funds to criminalise transmission, the appointment of a Russian government official to lead the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the secrecy surrounding the leadership of the new UN women’s agency.

It was suggested from the floor that the drug trade from production to use needed to be taken from the control of criminals and that drug policies, not drug users are a vector of the HIV. Mr Goulao said that this would take a goal effort and that Portugal has gone as far as possible under the UN drug conventions.


    The organizers reserve the right to amend the programme.

Contact Us | Site map © 2010 International AIDS Society