The 2009 Delhi High Court ruling striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code — to decriminalise same sex relations between consenting adults — could be showcased at the new Global Commission on HIV and Law, a new body launched by the United Nations Development Programme.

The Commission's aim is to increase understanding of the impact of the legal environment on national HIV responses. It will focus on how laws and law enforcement can support such efforts.

“Important step”

“Striking down of Section 377 has been a very important step in this direction and has generated a lot of expectations and excitement among the people who are either affected by HIV or those with different sexual preferences,'' J.V.R. Prasada Rao, member secretary of the Commission, told The Hindu here on Tuesday.

Mr. Rao, the former Union Health Secretary, is at present Special Adviser to the Executive Director of the UNAIDS for the Asia-Pacific region.

“India's reforms in dealing with HIV, particularly decriminalising consensual same sex preference, access to medicines and even ending social discrimination will definitely be showcased at the global level,'' he said.

The court ruling was the first in India to directly guarantee rights for homosexuals. It overturned a 149-year-old British colonial law, which described sex between members of the same gender as an “unnatural offence.”

Even as the U.S. and China have removed travel restrictions on HIV positive people, new “restrictive'' legislation on HIV is being enacted in 15 countries, including Uganda and some countries in Africa. At present 52 countries have travel restrictions on HIV positive people. This includes India also.

The Commission, announced last month, has an 18-month term and will submit its report in December 2011. It will pick up some most challenging legal and human rights issues in the context of HIV, including criminalisation of HIV transmission and behaviours and practices such as drug use, sex work and consensual adult same sex relations.

“We will also take up issues like marital rape, domestic violence and access to drugs and availability and patenting of generic drugs, though the focus will be on HIV,” Mr. Rao said.

The Commission will have three meetings but will be supported by two inter-linked processes: regional hearings (to provide an interface between the Commission and stakeholders) and a Technical Advisory Group (to advise the Commission on key research and inform it on findings and recommendations). Purely an independent body, the Commission will have political leaders, academicians and public health and judicial experts, while the Technical Advisory Group will have AIDS activists including Mandeep Dhaliwal and Vivek Divan from India.

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