Parliament committee notes that clauses run counter to international HIV, human rights guidelines against laws creating HIV-specific crimes
“The House may wish to note that the situation of HIV in the country is very bad,” begins the Ugandan Parliament Committee on Health report on the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill passed Tuesday. The report goes on to note that after early apparent success in tackling the epidemic, the country is once again facing rising rates of the virus, and “What is more scaring is that Uganda is one of the only three countries in Africa where HIV prevalence rates are increasing . . .!”
The committee’s response to what the report terms “this unpleasant revelation” was to review and update the bill, originally drafted in 2010, but tabled after the dissolution of that Parliament. On Tuesday it completed that review, only to pass legislation that international and local advocacy organizations call “a giant leap backwards in the global struggle against HIV & AIDS,” and one that further “undermines Uganda’s already backsliding response.” The bill, as noted here Tuesday, criminalizes “intentional” and “attempted” HIV transmission, mandates testing of pregnant women, their partners, and victims of sexual offenses, allows medical workers to disclose peoples’ HIV status to third parties, all counter to international public health and human rights conventions. In a release condemning the passage of legislation, the International Community of Women Living with HIV points to the impact mandatory testing of pregnant women and their partners will have, discouraging women from seeking antenatal care and putting more children at risk of perinatal infection as a result. In addition the group’s release points to the bill’s clause encouraging health workers to divulge the status of people living with HIV when “an HIV infected person is in close or continuous contact” with others whom, “in the opinion of” the health worker, could become infected as a result. The clause, the group’s release says, “represents an institutionalized form of stigma and discrimination that dramatically increases the likelihood of violence against women living with HIV.”
The International Community of Women Living with HIV also highlights what perhaps is the bill’s most prominently objectionable clauses, criminalizing “intentional” and “attempted” HIV transmission, The group’s release notes that existing laws in the country already provide punishment for endangering others (by a “negligent act likely to spread infection or disease”) and to international consensus that HIV-specific criminalization greatly adds both to stigma surrounding the illness, and to disincentives to be tested for it.
Ugandan nurse Rosemary Namubiru who is being prosecuted under existing law, appears to be the first person in the fifty-year history of that law to face that charge, in a case widely characterized as unprecedented. The nurse, who lives with HIV, was attempting to inject a struggling child in January when the needle she was using pierced her own skin. She is charged with continuing the injection without first changing the needle. The baby remains HIV negative, Namubiru is charged with negligence, and health workers have emphasized that the understaffed and overburdened health setting in which she worked greatly challenges care and increases the likelihood of errors. In spite of all of that, her trial has exposed fear, confusion and stigma surrounding an HIV diagnosis, with antiretroviral medicine seized from her home and used as evidence against her, and local headlines referring to her as “killer nurse,” and “baby killer.” Today, a news report on her trial characterized the charge against her as “negligently trying to infect a two-year old child with HIV/Aids.” A verdict in her case is expected Thursday.
The Parliament committee report makes note of objections to some of the bill’s clauses, but notes “the committee finds no harm” in the clauses criminalizing “intentional” and “attempted” transmission. In addition, a Uganda Parliament release on the bill, quotes committee Chair Kenneth Omona insisting that “during the consultations, the people living with HIV/AIDS agreed with the prosecution of individuals who intentionally spread HIV.” The release notes, at the same time that “the clause contravenes the International Guidelines on HIV and Human Rights which states that ‘criminal or public health regulation should not include specific offenses against the deliberate and intentional transmission of HIV but rather should apply general criminal offences to these exceptional circumstances.”
The committee report nods to other objections, but includes among its counter arguments that to delete the clause mandating testing of pregnant women, their partners and victims of sex crimes “would kill the spirit of the bill.” The report also responds to concerns that “practical difficulties,” to implementing provisions that “a person shall use protective measures to protect him or herself and others from infection with HIV during sexual intercourse.” The committee members acknowledge that the clause, among other problems, “would affect individuals who would wish to seek redress in cases where they are infected with HIV, since they would be taken not to have abided by the provision of the clause,” and the report also appears to concede that “reasonable care” in Uganda can be challenged by lack of resources and facilities. The report concludes, however, that the committee “recognizes the need for everybody who is likely to be exposed to HIV to be responsible not to contract it.”
Uganda’s latest legislation comes against the backdrop of HIV-response-slowing consequences that continue to unfold following the February implementation of the Anti-Homosexuality Law, which led to police action and suspension of activities of the U.S. supported Makerere University Walter Reed HIV prevention, care, treatment and research program. And, as this report from Uganda, HIV Organizations Feel the Bite of Anti-Homosexuality Legislation, indicates, progress against HIV in Uganda faces further obstacles with the looming “Non-Government Organization Registration (Amendment) Bill 2013, now before the cabinet. The bill would empower national and district monitoring committees to dissolve nongovernmental organizations deemed “subversive” and impose prison terms of up to eight years for staffers of those organizations. The bill is widely seen as targeting organizations supporting gay individuals and other sexual minorities.