By: Ronald Colbert, Independent Journalist
(Adapted by Jan Voordouw, Panos Institute)
“We must protect public health as well as human rights,” stated lawyer Margaret Dessources Brierre during the national forum on solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs), which took place from 21-23 April 1999 in Petionville, Haiti. Highlighting weaknesses in Haitian legislation in terms of protecting the human rights of infected people, she labeled HIV as a paradox.
“Discrimination, which deprives individuals of certain rights because of their state of health, is not foreseen nor suppressed by the Haitian penal code. During an epidemic, when the spread of disease must be restricted, the non-respect of fundamental personal rights must be checked in order to protect the dignity of infected people,” she remarked. She also referred to a set of international guidelines established with a view to guarantee the protection of the human rights of infected people.
In view of the extent of the epidemic and the existing legal gap concerning the protection of human rights for PWAs, lawyer Margaret Dessources Brierre recommended a huge information campaign to halt the spread of the disease.
The national forum in Petionville discussed aspects of incarcerating people with AIDS. Using a question of a participant, Dessources Brierre pointed out the reprehensible character of certain behaviours, notably those of people who consciously transmit the virus to other people.
“The law of Haiti has no provisions against infected people who deliberately pass on the virus to others. Should we criminalize these acts or introduce moral – obvious intention – and material elements – the act of rape itself?”
Since legislation is absent on these issues, a rape committed by an infected person could be classified, under the penal code in force, under the heading of “blows and wounds resulting in death” or under “poisoning.” The participants in the forum’s workshop on legal aspects relating to AIDS found that this is relatively difficult to justify.
Dessources Brierre reminded however that only victims have the capacity to act. Public action can not automatically be put into motion in these specific cases. It is difficult to prove rape, because there should not have been consent at any moment.
Besides, some of the women who suffered this type of violence and sexual abuse, tend to give in at a certain point. Nevertheless, this specific argument cannot be a base for deciding that rape didn’t happen. “We must look into this, because too many cases of rape remain unpunished exactly because of the degradation of morals,” Dessources Brierre underlined.
The issue of abortion was also discussed at the forum. Have women living with the virus the right to abortion or not? Theoretically, Haitian legislation condemns abortion as a crime and will not authorize it, even not for therapeutic reasons. However, in practice abortion is commonly done in Haiti without being prosecuted in any way. “To deny a woman the right to undergo abortion, when we know that the risks of transmission of the virus to the baby at birth are very high, would be to deny her the freedom of choice. Lawmakers should look into this matter,” the lawyer suggested.
According to Dessources Brierre, the promotion of personal rights could contribute to improving the self-image of an infected person, and this could result in him or her becoming more open and receptive to programmes of prevention. Infected people have the right to be considered as ordinary patients, just like people suffering from cancer or tuberculosis for instance. The lawyer tackled questions such as “Can infected persons be denied the right to work? Can a person be fired based on being infected?” She considered dismissal and related actions as discrimination.
Dr. Génécé of Promoteurs Objectif ZeroSIDA (POZ) deplored: “Ethical issues are very evident in highly developed countries, which have gone through a long period of democracy at the levels of governance and human rights. However, in a society like ours, which still finds itself in the learning stage of democracy, and where people’s primary needs are not even met, there remains a lot to be done with regard to ethics and respect of human rights.”
National legislation should be redefined, in particular concerning abortion, was pointed out in several of the workshops convened during the forum in which seropositive people from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and other Caribbean countries took part. Abortion could be an alternative to the prevention of transmission of the virus from mother to child. The group sessions asked doctors to inform patients of their serological status, and provide them professional assistance and proper counseling.
It was also suggested to introduce sexuality education in training curricula – prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and AIDS – from a very early age. The Minister of Education should develop guidelines to prevent discrimination of any kind against seropositive pupils and to guarantee their right to education.
The forum on solidarity with the people infected by the AIDS virus was sponsored by the Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) and organized by Plan International Haiti, Promoteurs Objectif Zero SIDA (POZ) and the Panos Institute. The forum also received technical and financial support from UNAIDS and the Policy Project/USAID.