- Over 50 Ugandan and international organisations are warning government that the "repressive" HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill, soon to be voted on in the Kampala parliament, could destroy Uganda's earlier successes in fighting back the pandemic.
The controversial bill would, if approved, criminalise the wilful transmission of HIV, the failure to "observe instructions on prevention and treatment," and misleading statements on preventing or controlling HIV. It includes mandatory testing for HIV and forced disclosure of HIV status. And it further strengthens penalties related to homosexuality and prostitution.
A 10-page analysis of the bill was released in Kampala on Friday. The report criticises "repressive provisions in the legislation as contrary to the goal of universal access to HIV prevention, care, and treatment."
"We know what works and what doesn't in fighting HIV," comments Beatrice Were of the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics & HIV/AIDS. "This bill, unfortunately, is full of ineffective approaches that violate human rights and will set us back in our efforts to fight the AIDS epidemic and expand HIV programs nationwide," she adds.
The report cites Uganda's success during the 1990's in addressing HIV. Rather than adopt punitive approaches, the government engaged civil society in prevention efforts and worked to reduce the stigma of the disease. Citing international standards and "best practices," the report says that mandatory testing and criminal penalties "can be counterproductive, driving people away from testing and treatment."
"Women and girls have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS," noted Joseph Amon of the US-based group Human Rights Watch. "My fear is that mandatory testing and disclosure will lead to prosecution and violence instead of treatment and care," Mr Amon warns.
The bill also criminalises a wide and ill-defined range of conduct, such as discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS and breach of confidentiality. According to the report, many of these acts are better dealt with through civil liability. Criminalising such a wide range of actions "opens the door for the government to prosecute people in selective or abusive ways while adding to the huge backlog in Uganda's courts," it warns.
Also, the bill would mandate compulsory testing for drug users and sex workers, two groups that are already marginalised and criminalised in Uganda. There are concerns the proposed law, combined with other legislative efforts strengthening penalties related to homosexuality, will add to "a body of repressive criminal law in Uganda."
"These laws make it more difficult for civil society and non-governmental organisations to conduct effective programs with stigmatised communities," the report adds, with special reference to homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts. All these groups are seen as high-risk populations regarding HIV-AIDS.
"It is important to have a law that protects the rights of people with regard to the HIV/AIDS epidemic," Mr Amon said. "But the bill as drafted would only make it harder to prevent and treat HIV and would put Uganda's HIV policies and response far outside of global norms," the human rights activist warns.
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