HIV criminalisation during 2020: cases continue but also legal advances

HIV Justice Network

A recent bulletin from HIV Justice Network includes the following summary of developments during 2020. [1]

The organisation reported at least 90 cases of unjust HIV criminalisation in 25 countries, with Russia and the United States being the worst offenders.  Women living with HIV were accused in 25% of those cases. Three of these cases were for breastfeeding. In the United States, more than 50% of those accused in HIV criminalisation cases were people of colour.

2020 also saw Poland passing a new law against COVID-19 that also increased the criminal penalty for HIV exposure, and number of disappointing HIV criminalisation higher court appeals in the US (Ohio), and Canada (Ontario and Alberta) that appeared to ignore science over stigma.

And yet, despite the many difficulties of 2020, the movement to end unjust HIV criminalisation has continued to gain momentum.

In the United States, Washington State modernised its HIV-specific criminal law in March, reducing the ‘crime’ from a felony to a misdemeanour, adding in a number of defences, and eliminating the sex offender registration requirement. Earlier this month, legislators in Missouri published plans to modernise its HIV-specific criminal law next year.

In Europe, Sweden abolished the legal requirement to disclose HIV status in March, the Spanish Supreme Court set an important precedent for HIV criminalisation cases in May, and in June, Scottish police ended the stigmatising practice of marking people living with HIV as ‘contagious’ in their database.    

In Francophone Africa, HIV-specific criminal law reform in Benin and across the region is looking likely thanks to a recognition that existing laws do not reflect up-to-date science.    

And in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, a process to completely abolish the draconian HIV-specific criminal law in Belarus has begun.

The email bulletin is free and registration and back issues are also online. [2]

The bulletin from 8 January 2021 also reports an important editorial in the Lancet HIV calling for legal reform in the US. Unfortunately, this is not available as open access article. [3, 4]


  1. HIV Justice Network. Weekly bulletin. (18 December 2020).
  2. HIV Justice Network. Subscriptions and back issues.
  3. HIV Justice Network. Weekly bulletin. (8 January 2021).
  4. Mermin J. HIV criminalisation laws and ending the US HIV epidemic. Lancet HIV. DOI:10.1016/S2352-3018(20)30333-7. (January 2021).

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