Thirty years after the first cases of HIV were diagnosed, 90 percent of countries in the Asia-Pacific region still have laws and practices that obstruct the rights of people living with HIV and those at higher risk of HIV exposure.

As part of a global drive to remove barriers to progress in the AIDS response, policymakers and community advocates have joined experts from the Global Commission on HIV and the Law in Bangkok on 17 February for the first in a series of regional dialogues  held across the world.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law is an independent body comprising some of the world’s most respected legal, human rights and HIV leaders. At the dialogue, approximately 150 participants from 22 countries discussed and debated region-wide experiences of restrictive and enabling legal and social environments faced by key populations in the Asia-Pacific region, including people living with HIV.

According to UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, “The law and its application can have a profound impact on the lives of people, especially those who are marginalized and disempowered.  The law is a powerful instrument to challenge stigma, promote public health, and protect human rights. We have much to learn from the positive and negative experiences in this region on the interactions between the law, legislative reform, law enforcement practices, and public health responses.”

Across the region, legislation and law enforcement often lag behind national HIV policies, with the result that the reach and effectiveness of HIV prevention, treatment and care programmes are undermined. For example, 19 countries still criminalize same-sex relations and 29 countries criminalize some aspect of sex work. Many countries in the region enforce compulsory detention for people who use drugs and in some cases (eleven countries in Asia) issue the death penalty for drug offences.

Responding on behalf of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the Hon. Michael Kirby, Commissioner and Co-Chair of the Commission’s Technical Advisory Group stated “the effectiveness of the HIV response will depend not just on the scale up of HIV prevention, treatment and care, but on whether the legal and social environment support or hinder programmes for those who are most vulnerable. This requires bold and effective legal and policy measures to reach out to vulnerable communities and individuals at risk.”

The Regional Dialogue, hosted by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, was jointly organized by UNDP and UNAIDS in partnership with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission on Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). In mid-2010, ESCAP’s Member States passed Resolution 66/10 in which countries committed to address policy and legal barriers to effective HIV responses.

“I am proud that, in our region, we have had such strong showing of collective will to handle these difficult issues,” said Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “In adopting Resolution 66/10, our Member States highlighted the urgency of ensuring universal access to comprehensive prevention programmes, treatment, care and support. A major step towards achieving these goals is to foster an equitable and just legal and policy environment, with particular regard for key populations.