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Criminalizing HIV transmission using model law: troubling best practice standardizations in the global HIV/AIDS response

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A growing body of social science research has focused on the negative public health consequences of criminalizing the sexual transmission of HIV. I examine the criminalization of contagion in West and Central Africa and address a significant research gap: How do legislative environments that enable harmful laws to be applied become created in the first place? With stated aims of promoting human rights and public health objectives, HIV/AIDS-related laws have been created transnationally though the use of an omnibus model law. A group of legislative actors have problematized this United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded model law, known as the USAID/Action for West African Region model law, or N'Djamena model law. This ‘harmonizing’ text led to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS laws, including the criminalization of HIV transmission, across at least 15 countries in West and Central Africa between 2005 and 2010. The HIV model law was packaged and ‘sold’ to developing countries through the strategic use of best practice discourse. Best practice replications are enabled though a set of social and technological relations of use including the availability of mobile, standardizing texts. Although best practice standardization has been a key feature of global health institutions work activities in the HIV response over the past two decades, recent replications related to the criminalization of HIV transmission illustrate the potential public health dangers of ‘don’t reinvent the wheel’ thinking. I offer a normative critique of the transnational, text-mediated process that has produced highly problematic laws.
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Keywords: HIV/AIDS; best practice; criminal law; criminalization; model law

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

Publication date: August 8, 2015

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