Middle East HIV/Aids policies under scrutiny

Ill-treatment and discrimination against Aids victims in the Middle East is coming under the UN spotlight again.

NEW YORK // Ill-treatment and discrimination against Aids victims in the Middle East is coming under the spotlight again, with the UN investigating "punitive laws and human rights violations" against sufferers. Last month's UN conference in Dubai found many countries in the Middle East and North Africa fall "well short" of providing universal treatment, with sufferers often subject to ill-treatment, social stigma and discrimination.

The world body has now launched a "Global Commission on HIV and the Law" to assess whether legal structures criminalise certain types of high-risk behaviour and drive the disease underground. Dr Mandeep Dhaliwal, an Aids expert for the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said it is "terribly important" to investigate punitive laws in the Middle East and said commissioners will meet in the region to study its legal architecture.

Michel Sidibé, the head of UNAIDS, is expected to preside over the high-level probe next year, which will involve health chiefs, justice ministers and other government officials from across the Middle East. Women are more vulnerable to HIV when laws fail to protect them from rape, both inside and outside marriage, experts warn. Forcibly testing migrants and then deporting those found to be infected can also be counterproductive.

Laws against homosexuality, drug use and prostitution drive high-risk behaviour underground and make those involved less likely to get tested for HIV, the UN says. While not necessarily advocating for legalising prostitution and narcotics, commissioners will evaluate whether other policy tactics - such as allowing so-called "shooting galleries" or testing clinics for sex workers - can help prevent the disease from spreading.

"Some 106 countries still report having laws and policies that present significant obstacles to effective HIV responses," said Helen Clark, head of UNDP. "We need environments which protect and promote the human rights of those who are most vulnerable to HIV." Over the next 18 months, the commission will evaluate which legal frameworks are most effective at tackling the spread of Aids, and pinpoint those that violate human rights. Findings from its report, due at the end of next year, will not be legally binding but are expected to be built into a UN General Assembly resolution.

"We must stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are living with HIV and who are most at risk," said Mr Sidibé. "By transforming negative legal environments, we can help tomorrow's leaders achieve an Aids-free generation." The latest UN figures count 33.4 million people around the world living with HIV, with only 310,000 across the Middle East and North Africa. Some 2.7 million people become infected and a further 2 million die from the disease each year.