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Friday, 25 September 2009

Canada: 'Enough, this is it, no more' says advocate

Today, has an extraordinary interview with Bob Watkin, the outgoing Chair of the HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario (HALCO), that illustrates just how oppressed and under seige some HIV-positive Canadians (particularly gay men knowledgable about the law) are feeling about the approach of the criminal justice system to HIV non-disclosure before sex.

He is angry. So angry that he makes some pretty radical statements, including attacking his own!

One of those things [I disagreed with] is the way HALCO’s Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV approached the issue of HIV criminalization. Its position that criminalization — criminal charges against HIV-positive people for failure to disclose their serostatus to sex partners — may be called for in some instances is anathema to me. I will not accept it or agree with it.
I've read the Working Group's position statement several times (and know and respect many of the people involved in the Group), and I can't see anything in it that supports criminal charges for non-disclosure. It's main message is: "The criminal law is an ineffective and inappropriate tool with which to address HIV exposure."

He also suggests that anyone accused of non-disclosure engage in a one-person act of civil disobedience.
I'm suggesting to HIV-positive people that, if they find themselves charged in connection with failure to disclose allegations, they exercise their legal right to refuse to give statements that could end up being used against them in criminal court, that they should no longer cooperate with anyone, anywhere, anytime, or answer any questions about their sexual conduct...I’m not suggesting that anyone act irresponsibly. What I’m saying is it doesn’t matter what your actions are.
That this interview appears in a national gay forum, rather than one solely aimed at HIV-positive individuals, is remarkable (and brave not just of Bob Watkin, but also Xtra's editorial director, Matt Mills), but also somewhat problematic. If the pattern follows that of the UK, the majority of HIV-negative gay men support prosecutions, and even amongst HIV-positive individuals the sides are not clear-cut. Hence the rather strong comments (two so far, but it's only just been published) from readers.

There's no doubt in my mind that Canada (and Ontario in particular, where non-disclosure is now being charged as attempted murder ) is the front line in the fight against the criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission. What happens there may well determine the future for many other wealthy, low-prevalence countries with similar legal systems. The lines in the sand have been drawn, and Bob Watkin (and Xtra - which covers this issue almost every week: see also 'Finding a way out of the HIV criminalization loop' from September 10) is issuing a call to arms.

Below are highlights of Bob Watkin's interview with Matt Mills.
I cannot condone in any way the conduct of anyone that results in someone else being infected. But there is no justification at all — anyway, anywhere, anyhow — for the criminalization of HIV and AIDS.


What led us to this point is an abject failure of the public health system and its proven inability to deal with a chronic long-term disease, HIV...It may be very difficult for people to accept being locked up by public health but it’s much better to be locked away, treated and educated in a medical setting, than to be locked in a prison.


The charges boil down to allegations. There is no other evidence that is really relevant. In all of these situations, no one disputes that the sex occurred. Two people make an irresponsible decision, one of them happens to be HIV-positive. Only one of them is absolved and that just isn’t right.

All this has created an environment in which people are not getting tested. They are afraid to know. People who have means are leaving the country, getting tested elsewhere and in fact getting treatment elsewhere, so they don’t leave evidence of their HIV status.

We as HIV-positive people have to say, “Enough, this is it, no more.” Unless we start saying that as a group we’re just going to find our lives become more and more and more dreadful.

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