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Friday 6 August 2010

Guyana: Lawmakers debate HIV-specific criminal law

A newly proposed law for the South American country of Guyana, entitled 'Criminal Responsibility of HIV Infected Individuals' was recently debated in the country's  National Assembly. (Thanks to Lucy Reynolds from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for alerting me).

Two news reports published on July 30th – on Caribbean 360 and Stabroek News – cover the debate and outcome.

Everall Franklin, member of the Guyana Action Party-Rise Organise and Rebuild (GAP-ROAR) proposed the law, seconded by Latchmin Punalall from Alliance For Change (AFC). Both cited their belief that the law would deter HIV-related risk-taking behaviour and/or force individuals to disclose their status.

While speaking on the motion, Franklin said that the stigma and discrimination associated with the virus is being propelled by ignorance and noted that the intention of the motion was, while not to remove or dilute existing laws, to ensure that certain obligations of individuals are kept in tact while others enjoy their rights. He said that the motion should be considered from the perspective of a person being tested positive as having contracted HIV having the responsibility of informing partners of his/her status. In addition, a person being raped by someone who is infected with the virus as well as women who become pregnant year after year, and who have tested positive for the virus, should be considered, he said.
AFC MP Latchmin Punalall, who seconded the motion, said that her party  stands for the sanctity of humanity and according to her the time is right to pass critical legislation to prevent the spread of HIV by “reckless” persons. Against this backdrop, she noted that when such individuals know before hand that a “stiff penalty is in place …they will think twice.”
Strong opposing arguments came from Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy, supported by Volda Lawrence of  the main opposition People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR). 
“Stigma and discrimination have proven to be the powerful drives of the HIV epidemic. Most people living with HIV and know their status are taking measures to protect themselves and others,” [Ramsammy] said, insisting that any motion that sets criminal penalties for HIV transmission and to force public disclosure of a person’s status is counter to the objectives of public health. “The fact is that criminalisation of HIV exposure risks undermining public health and human rights and as such it is not a solution,” the Health Minister maintained.

He emphasised that in the instance where a person willfully transmits HIV with intent to cause harm, the matter calls for a comprehensive national dialogue, which can be deliberated at the level of the parliamentary special select committee.
Of particular interest was Mr Franklin's referral to precents set in the Global North
adding that nations, including the US and Australia, have passed laws making the wilful spread of HIV a criminal offence.
Ms Lawrence countered that
criminal procedures have been implemented in countries where addressing the issue is concerned but according to her such measures have not been effective.
All Members of Parliament have agreed that the motion be taken to a special select committee to be discussed further.

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