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Human Rights Day message from Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director
I invite you to join us on Human Rights Day, and every day, as we take action to reform our systems, to recover better and to fight for everyone’s rights.
The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated once again how quickly rights violations can arise in an emergency. Inequalities that have too long been ignored were laid bare and exacerbated during the response to the pandemic. And yet we have learned from the AIDS response that it is only where rights are respected, protected and fulfilled that countries can make progress against an epidemic and build fairer societies.
Sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people and people who use drugs were often targeted by law enforcement during lockdowns, exposed to high rates of violence, omitted from social protection and financial support mechanisms and denied access to health services because community-led organizations were frequently deemed as non-essential.
There are 69 countries that still criminalize same-sex sexual relations, 92 that criminalize HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure and 32 that criminalize transgender people. Almost every country in the world continues to criminalize drug use and aspects of sex work. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now—this is not just an HIV issue, but one of fundamental equality and human rights.
The criminal law is a heavy and blunt instrument. It must be used with great care and sparingly. Used badly, it can harm when we need to help, it can oppress when we need to enable, and far from being neutral, it creates and amplifies existing discrimination and inequalities.
We need to transform our justice systems and change our laws. The law should work for everyone and protect everyone. Law reform can take time, but we can already act now to put a moratorium on arrests where criminal laws and their enforcement breach international human rights norms.
On Human Rights Day, let us commit to ending the inequalities and injustices that fuel AIDS and other pandemics.