‘Human Rights are inscribed in the hearts of people; they were there long before lawmakers drafted their first proclamation’
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and of the United Nation Commission on Human Rights. She stepped down as patron of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS this Autumn.
What are Human Rights?
Regardless of who we are, where we live, what we do every human being has rights. They belong to everyone. Human rights address many aspects of our everyday lives from the right to food, shelter, education and health to the right to freedom of thought, religion and expression.
The core values that are the foundation of Human Rights are: fairness, respect, equality, dignity, autonomy, universality and participation.
History of Human Rights
The concepts and ideas behind human rights are universal. They were not born in the West but they have been present throughout history in different societies and civilizations; Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, are underpinned by very similar values and ideas. The French Revolution, the Feminist movement of the Suffragettes, the liberation struggle of many African and Latin American nations from colonial powers, the Civil Rights movement by the Afro-American people and the fight against Apartheid were all Human Rights struggles.
Human Rights as we know them were born in the 20th century as a response to the crimes committed during the Second World War: in particular the persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Travellers, Communists and Gay people by the Nazis. In 1948 states came together at the United Nations to agree to the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (UDHR) the most renown Human Rights document.
The declaration of Human Rights was just a ‘declaration’ it was not legally binding, so was followed up by numerous international treaties in which states agree to apply the various rights included in the declaration. These treaties include: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economical Social and Cultural Rights.
In the UK we also have our own domestic human right laws which are contained in the Human Rights Act (1998).
The Rights contained in the Human Rights Act (HRA) are:
- The right to life
- The right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way
- The right to be free from slavery and forced labour
- The right to liberty
- The right to a fair trial
- The right to no punishment without law
- The right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence
- The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- The right to freedom of expression
- The right to freedom of assembly and association
- The right to marry and found a family
- The right not to be discriminated against in relation to any of the right contained in the European Convention of Human Rights
- The right to education
- The right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions
- The right to free elections
The fact that those Human Rights are legally covered in the HRA means that in the UK the state and by extension all public authorities, like for example the NHS, have the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil those rights.
Respect: means that the state must not carry out human rights abuse (such as a Government that would not allow HIV positive prisoners to have access to HIV prevention or treatment would be violating human rights).
Protect: means that the state must protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses by others (for example the state has a duty to protect HIV positive people from discrimination).
Fulfil: means that the state must take positive steps to make human rights a reality in people’s lives (for example adequately fund services that provide treatment and care to people living with HIV).
Obviously not all of those rights are absolute, some of them can be limited by the state in particular circumstances: for example the right to liberty can be limited if one commits a crime and has to be imprisoned.
Unfortunately, especially us who live with HIV know that our human rights are often not respected, not only around the world but also here in the UK. The Stigma Index (2009), a piece of research conducted by people living with HIV to measure the levels of stigma and discrimination in the UK, showed that almost 25% of people interviewed had experienced discrimination in the health services.
In spite of the fact that human rights are breached in the UK, and all over the world, it is essential that we have them recognised by law. Human Rights can be regarded as a minimum standard below which the state cannot go and also as a set of goals for the improvement of those minimum standards.
Above all it is important that we remember that even if very often human rights are not respected, their violation doesn’t take them away from us. Human rights are part of who we are as human beings; we are born with them, and can never be taken away.
Human rights and HIV
There is obviously a very strong link between HIV and Human Rights. HIV activists around the world have been advocating that an effective response to the HIV epidemic can only happen with full respects of Human Rights.
So which articles of the Human Rights Act are most relevant to us who live with HIV?
- Right to be free from discrimination
The state has a duty to include HIV in all anti-discriminatory laws, addressing the needs of those infected, affected, or vulnerable to HIV so that they are not disadvantaged. It also must protect groups particularly vulnerable to HIV such as women, children, gay men, intravenous drug users and sex workers. Violations of this right are rife, for example: many countries still don’t allow HIV positive people to enter their territory (e.g. China, Dubai and until recently USA).
- Right to privacy
Information on HIV status is confidential, medical records can only be shared with consent, HIV testing needs to be anonymous and voluntary.
- Right to health
PLHIV have a right to access health services, including GPs, dentists, family planning and sexual health services. Everybody has a right to access confidential and anonymous HIV testing, Women living with HIV have a right to access support and care to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Prisoners are entitled to the same level of prevention and care that people in the general population (condoms, clean needles, ARVs), of course this doesn’t always happens, even here in the UK.
- Right to be free from inhumane and degrading treatment
In the UK there is a strong debate about the violation of this right. Advocates have been using this article (Article 8 ) to support the claims of HIV positive asylum seekers, who would get sick and die if deported to countries where they will not be able to access ARVs and/or where they will not be able to receive appropriate support and care for example because they have no family or relatives left. However as treatment has been made more available in developing countries many of those claims have been refused, in spite of the fact that often people are on treatments that are not available outside of Europe, or that in their country ARV’s supply is extremely patchy and unreliable.
- Right to life, liberty and security of person
This is another right to protect HIV positive people from being forcefully isolated (e.g. quarantine). It also reinforces the duty of the state to provide appropriate treatment, prevention and care to everybody with HIV or vulnerable to HIV.
- The right to marry and have a family
This is an important right for people with HIV and one which is often violated. Women living with HIV around the world have been pressurised to have abortions or even sterilised without their consent. At present a group of Namibian HIV positive women are taking their government to court on human rights grounds for enforcing sterilisation of HIV positive women. The state has a duty to provide access to HIV friendly reproductive services including: assisted conception, adoption and fostering. Integration of HIV services and the provision of sexual health and reproductive services is based on human rights and has been a priority on the advocacy agenda of HIV positive women activists for a long time.
It is extremely important that we, people living with HIV, are aware of how the Human Rights Acts protect us and that it should not be taken for granted. The new Government has spoken about abolishing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights. One of the crucial differences between the two would be that while the Human Rights Act protects everybody on British soil, the Bill of Rights would only protect British citizens and, maybe, members of the EU, leaving migrants and asylum seekers, and especially those who are HIV positive, vulnerable to even more mistreatment, poverty and isolation.
This article was possible thanks to at training on Human Rights provided by the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) to PozFem UK the National Network of Women Living with HIV. If you want to learn more about how to use Human Rights the BIHR has developed an online resource: Human rights in action – a toolkit for change: