Protecting the rights of those vulnerable to HIV/AIDS is the goal of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, based in Toronto. The group, founded in 1992, will be represented at the XVIIthInternational AIDS Conference in Mexico City. It wants to expand awareness of its mission: advocating for law reform and for the human rights of people living with HIV, such as sex workers, prisoners and drug users.
Richard Elliott is the executive director of the network. From Toronto, in this second of a five-part series on the AIDS conference, Elliott told Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Cole Mallard it has conducted the most comprehensive global survey on needle exchange programs operating in prisons. Elliott says they looked at prisoners' rights in Canada under international law and the evidence prompted a report on the need for [sanctioned] prisoner needle exchange programs to promote public health. He says the organization has produced similar material that's been useful in international advocacy for scaling up the response to HIV in prison.
Regarding the rights of sex workers, Elliott says the network addressed evidence that criminalizing sex workers puts their health at greater risk and endangers their human rights. The group put that information together with a legal analysis and presented it at a press conference at Canada's Parliament to press for changes in criminal legislation that would protect prostitutes from being labeled criminals.
Elliott says the network spearheaded the efforts of a broad coalition of NGOs fighting for legislation to require compulsory licensing of patented drugs so lower cost generic versions could be exported to developing countries. He says as a result, the first shipment of lower cost generic anti-retrovirals from Canada will soon go to Rwandans living with HIV. But Elliott says, "We're not happy with the way the legislation stands because it's…cumbersome, and we're concerned that this might be a [one time only] use of it, so we continue to press for…further reforms to that law so that it can be streamlined and more user friendly for developing countries."
He says the network has succeeded in preventing legislation that would impose compulsory HIV testing after possible exposure: "In our view the very limited benefits of that legislation were outweighed by the harms to the human rights of people who would be forcibly tested." But he says this legislation has come up in a number of Canadian provinces "and that's been harder to resist, but we did derail it as a federal matter of law."