Parliament has been forced to defer debate on the controversial Public Health Bill following pressure from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
The United Nation’s agency, whose global mission is to lead, strengthen and support an ample response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this week went on a campaign against the bill which seeks among other things to empower medical practitioners to force patients to undergo HIV/AIDS tests and breach their confidentiality by reporting patients who test positive to the Director of Health Services.
UNAIDS officials have had meetings with members of the Parliament Health and HIV/AIDS committee and officials from the Ministry of Health to express their concerns with the bill. UNAIDS also wrote to different Botswana stakeholders in a bid to stop the bill.
In a letter dated 12th December 2012 addressed to the Minister of Health, Dr John Seakgosing and copied to Mokgweetsi Masisi, Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Utlwang Matlhabaphiri, Assistant Minister of Health, Dr. Gloria Somolokae, Assistant Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Margaret Nasha, Speaker of Parliament, Pono Moatlhodi, Deputy Speaker of Parliament and Richard Matlhare, National Coordinator, NACA , the Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS Jan Beagle states that UNAIDS is “concerned that some of provisions in the draft Public Health Bill will undermine the progress made thus far by deterring people from seeking HIV services.
“Of particular concern are the provisions allowing for mandatory HIV testing (article 105), disclosure of HIV status (article 116), and the isolation of people living with HIV in certain circumstances [article 116(10)]. Furthermore, UNAIDS notes that the Bill does not address a number of critical human rights issues in the context of HIV, such as the vulnerability and needs of women, the situation of key populations (i.e. men who have sex with men, migrants, and sex workers), and access to services for prisoners. As stated in the 2011 United Nations General Assembly Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS, protecting the rights of people living with HIV and members of key populations enables them to avoid HIV infection and seek appropriate services.”
It emerged from the letter that UNAIDS had also attached, “more detailed comments from the UNAIDS Secretariat on the Public Health Bill”.
Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Margaret Nasha, confirmed receiving the letter from UNAIDS and the meeting between UNAIDS and members of the Parliamentary Committee of Health and HIV/AIDS. “We took a decision as parliament that the bill be revisited next year,” she said.
It emerged from the contents of the UNAIDS letter that Minister Masisi may have misled parliament when he argued that the proposed provisions on forcing people to test for HIV/AIDS are in line with international best practices.
Masisi on the other hand told Sunday Standard that, “there is no instruction from Cabinet that the bill be withdrawn or deferred. As far as we are concerned the Health Bill is still in the Order Paper.
Masisi said while he could not comment on the contents of the UNAIDS letter, he was worried that campaigners against the bill are trying to tarnish Botswana’s record in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The UNAIDS bid to stop the Botswana Public Health Bill comes in the same week that the organisation was making a global call for zero discrimination and ensuring rights to health, dignity and security. In a press statement issued this week, the UNAIDS office in Geneva issued a press statement calling for effective programmes and protective laws to overcome discrimination and marginalization in the context of HIV.
“But many of the people most affected by the epidemic remain marginalized and criminalizedÔÇôÔÇôsex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men and transgender people. They are unable to benefit from their rights to health, non-discrimination and freedom from violence. As the world strives to achieve zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths, efforts must be doubled to realize the rights of all people affected by HIV,” stated the press release.