Human rights are rights we have because we are human. These universal rights apply to us all, regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality, age, ethnic origin, religion, health, or any other status. They range from the most fundamental – the right to life – to those that make life worth living, such as the rights to food, education, work and liberty.
The right to health is a human right. And every person has the right to access healthcare services, including HIV services. People also have the right to equal treatment before the law and the right to dignity.
Many countries have committed to upholding human rights by signing international laws and treaties.
What links human rights and HIV?
HIV and human rights are closely connected. The people facing human rights violations are often the most marginalised in society. And this marginalisation makes them more vulnerable to HIV than other people. Yet marginalised groups often face huge challenges in accessing HIV prevention services, testing and treatment because their human rights are not respected.
HIV-related rights violations can take many forms.
HIV criminalisation refers to laws that criminalise people with HIV. This can be via HIV-specific laws or general criminal laws that prosecute:
- unintentional HIV transmission
- potential or perceived exposure to HIV where HIV was not transmitted
- non-disclosure of known HIV-positive status.
Evidence shows that HIV criminalisation is a poor public health strategy. It stops people from testing for HIV, which limits access to treatment and care, and this helps to drive HIV transmission. Laws that make people with HIV disclose their status actually make it less likely that people will tell others they have HIV.
Many countries have discriminatory laws and policies, such as the criminalisation of sex work, drug use, and of sexual orientation and gender identity. These laws push marginalised groups away from vital HIV and sexual health services, which violates their right to health and to healthcare. These laws can also restrict marginalised people’s ability to demand other rights, such as the right to employment.
Discriminatory laws help to drive stigma and discrimination against marginalised communities. This can result in poor treatment in healthcare settings or denial of treatment. It can also make it difficult for organisations offering sexual health and HIV services to work with marginalised communities, despite these communities urgently needing this support.
What can we do to improve human rights?
It is important to support people with HIV and other marginalised communities to understand their rights. Dialogues, training or educational sessions can be a useful way to explain what human rights are, and to show people that the things they are experiencing may be violating their rights – and what can be done to challenge this. It is also important to train those who marginalise others, so they can unlearn this behaviour and help rather than hinder.
It is useful to record cases of human rights violations. This data can be used to refer people who have experienced violations to health, legal and other public services. It can also be turned into evidence to present to those in authority, to advocate for changes to laws, policies and programmes.
Providing legal support to people whose rights have been violated not only helps them to seek justice, it can also help to challenge, and eventually change, discriminatory laws and practices.
Communities most affected by HIV should be full and equal participants in programmes so they have the power to bring about positive change to their own lives. It is also important to assess whether your programmes, activities and organisation operate in a non-discriminatory way.
Supporting people who have a duty of care to others, such as healthcare workers, police, teachers and politicians, to understand the impact of rights violations on marginalised communities is vital for bringing about change.
When countries sign human rights treaties, conventions and laws they legally commit to enforcing these rights. These commitments can be used to hold governments to account and to track progress.