Monday, March 17, 2008

Human rights abuse in the name of public health: HIV, ethics and Egypt

In the industrialized nations of the north, it is easy to take for granted the progress made in the control of the HIV virus, and some of the hard-fought, positive changes in the social, ethical and legal treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS. In the United States, regimes of increasingly effective drugs have been developed to control the virus and transform HIV/AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic disease; legal protections specific to persons with HIV/AIDS have been bolstered; social stigma, while by no means absent, has had some of its sharper corners blunted by therapeutic advances and improved public understanding of the modes of HIV transmission.

The fact that this is not the case globally was driven home by a recent report by Human Rights Watch. In Egypt, an HIV positive man -- or even a man suspected of being HIV positive -- is apparently in a far worse situation than their Canadian, American or Western European counterparts. Rather than being able to call on their government for protection, Egyptian authorities strictly enforce a national law against the 'habitual practice of debauchery', i.e. consensual sex between men. Or rather: they go beyond enforcement and towards state-sponsored sadism when it comes to suspected HIV positive gay men, chaining them to hospital beds and eventually jailing them because they are alleged to constitute a threat to public health, testing them for HIV without consent, and subjecting them to abusive and intrusive physical examinations.

Aggressive state action against homosexuals/HIV positive persons in Egypt is a fairly recent phenomenon, and requires an explanation. Hossam Bahgat ventured that the crackdown on gay men is motivated by a desire to (a) distract the public from the country's economic woes and (b) profile the government as a defender of 'Islamic values' (in order to counteract the growing Islamic opposition in the country) rather than a question of public health. There must have been something in those explanations, since Mr. Bahgat was fired from his position at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights two days after he published them.

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