Rights, obligations of those with HIV under focus
Laws to protect vulnerable groups seen as key By Samantha Alleyne
Stabroek News
November 8, 2003

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The wilful transmission of HIV to an unsuspecting partner was one of the issues suggested for consideration at a regional training workshop on the law, ethics and human rights related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The Caricom-led Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP) workshop is being held at Cara Inn over the next five days with participants from across the Caribbean.

Participants from Guyana include lawyers from the Attorney-General’s office and also representatives from the Caribbean Regional Dev-elopment Agency with HIV/AIDS (CRN+).

Chairman of the National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS), Dr Morris Edwards told Stabroek News the workshop had to address very broad issues since there were no laws to deal with HIV and AIDS.

Among the concerns was the issue of confidentiality of information on HIV/AIDS patients, what happens when someone breaches that information and who has access to this information.

Also he said there was a need to look at what happened when someone knowingly infected somebody else with HIV. Dr Edwards said this was a criminal offence and for him it fell under attempted murder. Recently in England a man was jailed for knowingly infecting two women.

Meanwhile, he said there was a need for laws regarding testing for HIV/AIDS.

In Guyana, Dr Edwards said that the country’s policy stated that testing should be voluntary but that was not yet the law.

“So to satisfy the national policy it should be legislated that no testing should be mandatory... There should be laws also protecting vulnerable groups. Now two of those vulnerable groups are very controversial, commercial sex workers and men who have sex with men. The laws in our statute group say that those kinds of activities are illegal. For the national AIDS programme that really poses a serious challenge...”

Dr Edwards said that as a region there was a need to address this issue to arrive at a unified position in having laws that enable them to have access to those vulnerable groups. “They serve as what we call core groups because of having multiple partners, the increased risks of acquiring HIV and as a matter of fact that is how the epidemic started moving across to the general population.”

“There should be laws also dealing with access to treatment, who would be treated and who would be prescribing. Should persons who are not au fait with managing with HIV be allowed to manage persons living with HIV, we all know fully well the danger that can pose...”

He said it would help if there were laws and legislation to deal with stigma and discrimination, however, laws alone could not help and as such there should be more public education encouraging persons to recognise that persons living with HIV and AIDS have the same fundamental rights. Those persons are part of “our family, they come from our mothers, our fathers...” He pointed out that that all are at risk of contracting HIV and no one would want to be discriminated against.

Michael Fox of CRN+ noted at the workshop’s opening session that persons were living with HIV and not dying from the disease, as many persons believed. “Some of us have degrees, others have families and we can still work and contribute.”

He later told reporters that in relation to addressing stigma and discrimination, that as a person living with HIV he feels, “it is important for the people that are trying to make decisions for people like me to know how I feel and to know how we feel about it.” He said that together they could come up with ways to fight stigma and discrimination in the communities and then set up some policies, laws and legislation to address them.

From the island of Bermuda, Fox said that in the past persons living with the virus were not involved enough in policy making but with the birth of the network, it had certainly became the authentic voice of people living with HIV and AIDS in the Caribbean.

Widespread stigma and discrimination are not only found in Guyana since Fox disclosed that while he talks openly about his condition in other countries, in Bermuda he has never come out publicly.

“And I think that is probably one important thing about CRN+ because as a network where people living within different Caribbean countries, we can go around and talk openly in different countries.”

The man said that his home country was small and since he was an entertainer everyone knew him.

He said one of the most important things needed by HIV/AIDS persons, “is to be accepted as normal people, we are normal people, we have hopes and dreams, we want to have children, we want to have husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, have jobs and we want to be part of the community.”

In his country there is no legislation pertaining to HIV and AIDS, however, Fox sees the support of government ministers and the political will to make changes.

“If the community [Caricom] can follow through then we will have PLWAS who are willing to come forward... And if people are willing to do that and know that they will get the support and not be shunned or turned away. No offence, but sometimes even the media takes the wrong approach”.

CRN+ started in 1996 and now has 150 members in 29 countries. Andre Subryan, now deceased, was a founder member of the group and was once a chairman of the board.

Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, who delivered the keynote address, said that one should be careful in considering ethics and human rights, as first the impact of public health policies should be examined along with the programme and practices on human rights.

“Secondly we must consider that the violation of rights have important negative influences on us, and thirdly we must take cognisance of the fact that the promotion and protection of health are inextricably linked to the promotion and protection of human rights...”

The workshop is part of a series of initiatives to train country research teams to undertake assessments on the effect of existing law and policy on the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS.

The national assessments will focus on identifying priority areas for reform and on providing concrete recommendations for bringing discriminatory laws and social policies in line with international law and best practice.

Three major objectives were listed to be achieved during the workshop: to increase understanding of HIV, vulnerability and the importance of an enabling environment and also to increase understanding of HIV-related laws, policy, international guidelines and human rights.

The second objective is to enhance knowledge related to, working with key populations affected by HIV, design and implementation of national assessments and monitoring and evaluation.

The third objective is improvement in relevant communication strategies and structures at the regional level.

Also present at the opening were Assistant Secretary General of Caricom, Edward Greene and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) representative, Murray Kam.