The Surprising Countries That Lead the World in HIV Prosecutions

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Dec. 3 2013 4:29 PM

U.N.: Stop Prosecuting People for Transmitting HIV

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Micael Milsten, chief organizer for World Aids Day in Stockholm, lights one of 500 candles for the victims of AIDS, on Dec. 1, 2003.

Photo by Bertil Ericson/AFP/Getty Images

UNAIDS has launched a “zero discrimination” campaign this week, which among other goals seeks to discourage countries from criminalizing the transmission of HIV. More than 60 countries have laws on the books mandating criminal penalties for HIV-positive people who engage in sex without disclosing their status, according to the organization.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

In many countries, including the United States, these laws have been found to disproportionately affect certain groups, particularly transgender people. In addition to human rights concerns, such laws can be counterproductive, creating a climate of fear that discourages patients from seeking treatment. “Criminal laws that mandate disclosure may create the impression that disclosure is something that can be relied upon by a sexual partner and lead to a false sense of security in the population that, in turn, may result in more risky behavior,” a recent policy guidance from the group warned.

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The guideline agrees with the findings of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, a group chaired by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, which also recommended repealing such laws last year.

By numbers, the world leader in convicting people of transmitting HIV, as of 2010, is the United States. The leading prosecutor as a percentage of people living with the virus is Sweden, “with 6.12 sentences per 1,000 people living with the virus, 60 times more than France and 24 times more than the United States.” AFP reports:

In Sweden a failure to comply with the HIV disclosure obligation, followed by unprotected sex, can result in charges of attempted aggravated assault and a prison sentence, even if the virus is not transmitted.
Thus people with HIV cannot legally have unprotected sex in any circumstance -- even if they reveal their HIV status and have the full consent of their uninfected partner, since a person cannot consent to an assault.

Norway has the second-highest rate. Denmark repealed its law, one of the harshest in Europe, in 2011.