Justice Edwin Cameron, South Africa’s only openly gay HIV positive judge, says the judiciary has a duty to protect vulnerable minorities from discrimination
(Corrects by removing words 'gay and' before 'HIV positive' in first paragraph, as Cameron came out as gay more than 30 years ago)
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In April 1999, while appearing before South Africa’s national judicial commission for a position on the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, Judge Edwin Cameron announced he was HIV positive.
Diagnosed in 1985, the prominent former anti-apartheid lawyer knew his coming out as HIV positive, almost two years after beginning his lifesaving antiretroviral treatment (ART), would make an impact in a country with a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic - and it did. His statement was front-page news.
Yet 14 years later, the stigma of carrying the virus and the discrimination against people around the world who do so, have not lessened, Cameron told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on Tuesday in which he also emphasised the power of the judiciary to help combat such prejudice.
“I made a public statement of my HIV status in 1999, a full 14 years ago. I’m still the only person holding public office in the whole of Africa who has spoken out about their own HIV,” said Cameron, who was finally appointed to the Constitutional Court in 2009. “There is almost complete silence” on the issue, particularly within the political, intellectual and affluent elite, for fear of condemnation and derision, he added.
This is why meetings like the June 2-4 gathering he attended in Bangkok were so important, he said. Some 30 judges from the highest national courts in 16 Asian Pacific countries met to discuss the role of the judiciary in the global response to HIV/AIDS.
A fierce critic of former president Thabo Mbeki’s approach to HIV/AIDS – a 2008 Harvard study said more than 330,000 South Africans had died as a result of delays in the provision of ARTs during Mbeki’s presidency – Cameron believes the judiciary could create a more supportive social and legal environment for people living with and vulnerable to HIV.
DUTY TO PROTECT THE VULNERABLE
“The crucial fact in getting our country to the right road for AIDS prevention, AIDS education and antiretroviral treatment provision was a decision by the Constitutional Court,” Cameron said, referring to the 2002 ruling that ordered the government to provide the AIDS drug nevirapine in hospitals throughout the country.
He also pointed to the recent ruling by India’s top court against Swiss drugmaker Novartis over patent protection for its cancer drug Glivec, which ensured the continued production of cheaper generic drugs in many areas, including those designed to combat AIDS.
“That shows the power of the judges,” he said.
According to Cameron, the legislative and executive arms of state are driven by the search for popularity, while the judiciary has to be driven by reason.
“Our biggest foe in the HIV epidemic has been fear, irrationality, prejudice, ostracism, and discrimination,” Cameron said. “So a forum (in Bangkok) where there are judges present who are committed to evidence-based reasoning is a great strength in any attempt to deal with the epidemic.”
Almost 90 percent of countries in the Asia Pacific region have laws, policies and practices that discriminate against people living with and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations agency on HIV/AIDS.
These include restrictions on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV, the refusal of healthcare, discrimination at the workplace and schools, forced sterilisation and verbal insults and threats.
“Judges have a duty to protect vulnerable minorities against irrationality, against prejudice, against ostracism, against hatred,” Cameron said.
The epidemic in Asia is concentrated among sex workers, drug users and men who have sex with men – minorities that already suffer discrimination even without HIV infection.
BREAKING THE VICIOUS CYCLE
The stigma combined with silence breed prejudice, leading to punitive laws and bad public policies, which in turn leads to more stigma.
“You break the vicious cycle by visibility,” Cameron said. “If you have a voice and a face, then you could identify with something, but when it’s some unseen phenomenon confined to groups you disapprove of, it’s very hard,” he added.
Cameron is also aware of his good fortune. If he had been black and poor when he was diagnosed, he would “almost certainly have been dead by now,” he said. “(That knowledge) is one of the things that keep me talking.”
Now, after more than a decade of advocacy led by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), South Africa has almost 2 million people on ART.
Cameron is an optimist, believing that one day the world will overcome the irrational public policies and stigma against people living with HIV, but he is not complacent.
“There’s (still) too much discrimination, too much stigma, too many new infections,” he said.
The sense of critical urgency has gone out of the international debate, but the issue remains critical, Cameron said.
“(This is) not only for the vulnerable groups who are living with HIV or are at risk but also because the phenomenon of AIDS over the last 30 years has challenged so many of our moral preconceptions,” he added.
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