a global commission on HIV is reading law books

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law

In 2010 the United Nations formed the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. The Commission examined how the law protects – or fails to protect – people with HIV. It considered how laws can impact the lives of those with HIV around the globe.1

The Commission looked at global responses to human rights, HIV, and the law. Members of the commission reviewed research and data. They met 3 times and visited regions around the world. They listened to stories of people affected by HIV.

They heard the stories of over 700 people from 140 countries. These stories illustrated the positive and negative ways that the law can affect people with HIV. They provided insight into discrimination within the HIV community.2,3

Makeup of the commission

The Commission had 14 members working together over 18 months. The members chosen were global leaders on HIV and the law. Their backgrounds were in:

  • Law
  • Academia
  • Politics
  • Human rights

A technical advisory group assisted the Commission. This 23-person committee advised on research and technical questions about HIV and the law. The Commission released its initial report in 2012. It also release supplemental updates in 2018 and 2022.1-3

Vulnerable communities

Groups of people (populations) revealed to be particularly vulnerable to HIV included:3-5

  • Women and children
  • Sex workers
  • People who inject drugs
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Transgender people
  • Migrants
  • Prisoners

The Commission affirmed the right of all persons to human dignity and justice.3-5

What are laws?

Laws shape how a society governs itself. Laws are the rules and consequences that order societies. Laws exist to:

  • Uphold public safety
  • Advance and defend human rights
  • Regulate trade
  • Maintain public health

Each country or nation has laws relating to HIV. These laws are often not enforced justly. Depending on the law, it may be:3,5

  • Ignored
  • Openly disregarded
  • Poorly enforced

Laws that hurt

Frequently, laws that target HIV treat the people who have it as less than human or make certain behaviors illegal (criminalize the behaviors). The laws result in people with HIV missing out on social services. Fear of punishment keeps people from getting testing and treatments. These laws hurt the community and contribute to the HIV epidemic. Some laws that hurt include:3,5

  • Laws criminalizing HIV transmission – People avoid testing for fear of these laws.
  • Laws criminalizing activities that carry a high risk of transmission – In many countries, same-sex relationships, using injected drugs, and sex work are illegal. Those engaging in these activities avoid testing to protect themselves.
  • Laws or traditions that control women and women’s bodies – Women lack the freedom to make decisions about their reproductive and sexual health.
  • Laws or traditions that limit youth access to independent testing – When they are required to get parental consent, young people avoid testing.
  • Patents on drugs – These limit the ability to produce HIV drugs at a low cost to treat greater numbers of people.

Programs that help

The Commission found hope within the law as well. Treating populations at high risk of getting HIV with dignity and respect lowers transmission rates. Governments and social services make a positive difference by:3

  • Providing free condoms
  • Running sites where people can exchange used needles for clean ones
  • Promoting women’s rights
  • Advocating to end laws that target high-risk populations
  • Rejecting trade agreements on patents in favor of public health


The Commission made many specific recommendations. They encourage but cannot require countries to act. Every recommendation falls under the umbrella of outlawing violence and discrimination against those at risk of contracting HIV. They promote laws to protect the vulnerable.2,3

Removing penalties associated with high-risk activities will lower infection rates. But many countries disregard the evidence and continue to prioritize discriminatory laws.2,3

Click here for more information about the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The H-I-V.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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