Who is a “Criminal?” Exclusion of Vulnerable Groups from International AIDS Conference Nothing to Celebrate
Part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.
As the International AIDS Conference ended in Washington D.C. this week, rumor has it that the lead organizer invited participants to celebrate the fact that “criminals” had been kept out of the conference. This with reference to the fact that sex workers and those convicted for drug crimes were prevented by current law from obtaining visas for the gathering.
Setting aside for a moment the insanity of excluding the voices of two groups very much affected by the HIV epidemic in general and by misdirected prevention policies in particular, and regardless of whether the rumors are true, we can use this opportunity to reflect on the definition, use, and potentially manipulative power of criminal laws and policies.
For starters, our concept of what is criminal is relative and fluid at best. When I did research on access to abortion for rape victims in Mexico in 2006 and 2007, I was shocked to learn that child victims of incest were considered criminals in many jurisdictions. Meanwhile, rapists could escape the label by marrying their victim, a relatively common provision in several other countries too, including Cameroon and Brazil. This notion of incest victims as criminals and rapists as…not criminals, illustrates the fluidity of the concept.
Sex workers too are not always breaking the law. In some jurisdictions, such as Canada until very recently, sex workers can avoid criminal sanctions by doing only out-calls or by working alone — conditions that tend to render their work more dangerous. In other jurisdictions, such as for example Nevada and New Zealand, sex work is generally legal, subject to regulation.