The role of human rights in the global response to HIV

Edwin J. Bernard
Published: 18 July 2010


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How societies treat [HIV-positive] people will not only test fundamental values, but will likely make the difference between success and failure of AIDS control strategies at the national level. To the extent that we exclude [HIV-positive] persons from society, we endanger society, while to the extent that we maintain [HIV-positive] persons within society, we protect society. This is the message of realism and of tolerance.

Dr Jonathan Mann, founding director of WHO’s Global Programme on AIDS, 1987.1

Jonathan Mann, the founding director of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Global Programme on AIDS, which later evolved into UNAIDS, gave voice to the idea that social injustices and limits on basic rights and freedoms can have direct and indirect effects on the health of individuals, communities and populations.2

Experts have long argued that the disruptive power of HIV-related stigma requires that HIV be treated differently from other infectious disease pandemics. See the chapter: Harm for more on how 'HIV exceptionalism' has had an impact on the perception of HIV's harm.

In the context of HIV, this leads to a paradox: despite strong moral arguments to apply punitive approaches to the prevention of HIV transmission, a rights-based approach is considered to be a more effective way to promote the type of behaviour modification required to mitigate the epidemic. Only then, it is argued, will individuals at risk of, and living with, HIV be able to act on the messages and access the means necessary for self-protection and the protection of others.3

Human rights have informed the global response to HIV in many ways. While the right to health is in itself an exhortation to respond broadly to the epidemic, numerous other rights are relevant to an effective response to the epidemic, including the rights to:

  • privacy
  • non-discrimination and equality before the law
  • liberty and security of person
  • freely receive and impart information
  • freedom of movement
  • participate in public life
  • share in the benefits of scientific advancement.

These and other rights find expression in legal, policy, advocacy and programmatic approaches to HIV prevention and treatment. In the legal realm, for example, most countries are parties to international treaties that obligate them to legally respect, protect and fulfil key human rights. These rights also serve as norms guiding policy and advocacy work on many HIV-related issues. And, at the programmatic level, human rights provide an important framework for developing and implementing HIV prevention and treatment interventions.4


  1. Mann J Statement at an informal briefing on AIDS to the 42nd Session of the United Nationals Special Assembly. October 20, 1987
  2. UNAIDS HIV, Health and Human Rights: the legacy of Jonathan Mann today. see, 2008
  3. UNAIDS Human rights and HIV. See, accessed 11 July 2010
  4. Jürgens R and Cohen J Human Rights and HIV/AIDS: now more than ever - 10 reasons why human rights should occupy the center of the global AIDS struggle. New York:Open Society Institute, 2009
This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
Community Consensus Statement on Access to HIV Treatment and its Use for Prevention

Together, we can make it happen

We can end HIV soon if people have equal access to HIV drugs as treatment and as PrEP, and have free choice over whether to take them.

Launched today, the Community Consensus Statement is a basic set of principles aimed at making sure that happens.

The Community Consensus Statement is a joint initiative of AVAC, EATG, MSMGF, GNP+, HIV i-Base, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, ITPC and NAM/aidsmap

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.

NAM’s information is intended to support, rather than replace, consultation with a healthcare professional. Talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team for advice tailored to your situation.