Today, the United Nations marks “Zero Discrimination Day,” an annual day of celebration that they made up in 2014. The day is meant to promote equality in all aspects of life, but in practice it seems to be a UNAIDS affair focused on discrimination against people living with HIV. Every member of the United Nations has committed in one way or another to change laws that discriminate against people who have HIV. Most have done so in declarations, agreements, policies, conventions, covenants, and on and on. They’ve been committing for years, decades even. At this point, it’s not something they’ve done, it’s something they do—they commit.
Despite the global affinity for committing, at least 68 countries report having laws that specifically criminalize nondisclosure, exposure and transmission of HIV, and 19 more are known to use general criminal laws to prosecute people on the basis of their HIV status. 67 countries criminalize gay sex, at least eight of them still give the death penalty for it. Marital rape isn’t a crime in 112 countries. At least 20 countries impose travel restriction on people with HIV. 59 countries report mandatory HIV testing for marriage, work, or residence permits or for certain groups of people. 45 countries report requirements of parental consent for a person under 18 to be tested for HIV. 29 countries require spousal or partner consent for a woman to access sexual and reproductive health services. It’s a crime to be transgender in at least 17 countries.
I’m not telling you something the UN doesn’t know, I’m telling you what they say in today’s UNAIDS “campaign brochure” launched to mark Zero Discrimination Day 2019. Armed with this evidence of pervasive legally-mandated discrimination against people with HIV, UNAIDS does what it does: it tells other people what to do. Their “campaign brochure” highlights “five actions” each for individuals, civil society organizations, governments, and donor organizations to take. To their credit, they recognize that “In many countries, the courts have the power to strike down laws [and] This can be realized through litigation …” Of course, they don’t recommend anyone actually bring litigation, it didn’t make the “five actions” cut. But they do say litigation is a thing that exists.
It might not do too much harm, and it’s possible it could do a little good, for UNAIDS to do their Rah, Rah, Sis Boom Bah on Zero Discrimination Day. Nonetheless, in recognition of UNAIDS’ advice for everyone else, some have kindly offered them advice in return. This, in short, is it: give money to people working on the ground to fight the laws that threaten their lives.
A network of activists and organizations in Kenya released a statement today suggesting “On Zero Discrimination Day we take action to fight laws that discriminate against people with HIV. UNAIDS should too.” Seems like good advice to me. They drew attention to people with HIV and their loved ones who, through the #PositiveJustice Campaign, have brought litigation to challenge Kenya’s HIV criminalization laws, which rank among the world’s most expansively interpreted and severe, carrying a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years imprisonment for people who have HIV just for doing things that are completely safe and reasonable.
As they put it, “To challenge these laws requires courage, wits and resources. We call on UNAIDS and other development partners and donors to go beyond words and to support in act and with resources the brave people who have at great personal sacrifice and risk stepped forward in the Positive Justice Campaign.”