UNAIDS human rights indicators: What counts?

“Annie Lennox SING campaign, Vienna 2010 b” by Manfred Werner – Tsui – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Take a trip back to the fabulous summer of 2010, when thousands of activists marched at the International AIDS Conference, waved our beer steins in Stephansplatz to the sweet songs of Annie Lennox, and demanded Human Rights and HIV/AIDS, Now More Than Ever. That year, UNAIDS added ambitious human rights targets to its 2011-15 “Getting to Zero” strategy.

Now fast forward to 2015. The UNAIDS-Lancet Commission has once again called for ambitious human rights action to help bring an end to AIDS by 2030. As UNAIDS and The Global Fund craft new strategies for the next four years, it seems like a good time to ask – how are we doing?

Hard to say, given the unfortunately fluffy reporting by UNAIDS on its last human rights indicators. For example, here’s one of those human rights targets from 2010:

  • Countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality that block effective responses reduced by half

A bold goal: to cut in four years the number of countries with punitive laws that have been shown, over and over again, to make it impossible to reach the “key populations” most vulnerable to HIV. Specifically, UNAIDS demanded that we cut the number of countries with laws that:

  • Criminalize HIV transmission
  • Criminalize sex work
  • Criminalize drug use
  • Criminalize same-sex sexual relations

Four categories, four clear goals — totally measurable.

But never actually measured. Because UNAIDS annual reports:

  • Never set a clear baseline (Cut half of…how many?)
  • Often used narrative description instead of numbers
  • Changed what they measured each year, and
  • Did not consistently report comparative data (whether numbers increased or decreased from year to year).

To see a quick overview of what did get reported, check out Table 1. (Thanks to Alexandrina Iovita for sharing published sources, though she bears no responsibility for the snarky blog post. If anyone shares other, better data reported by UNAIDS, I’ll gladly update this.)

Table 1: Countries with punitive laws, 2011-15[1]

Number of countries with laws criminalizing” 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
HIV transmission 60 60 63 61 60
Sex work 120 “Majority of countries” “Most countries” 116 “Most countries”
Drug use Number of countries with compulsory drug treatment and death penalty No number provided Number of countries with compulsory drug treatment “Almost universally criminalized” “Most countries”
Same-sex sexual relations 78 78 76 78 79

Sources: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Getting to Zero: 2011-15 Strategy; UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic (2012); UNAIDS Global Report (2013); UNAIDS Gap Report (2014); UN Secretary General report to UN General Assembly 69 (2015).

A few observations:

  • On sex work and drug use, UNAIDS annual reports often said only that “most countries” criminalized, without giving a number. (Twice, UNAIDS reported data on the number of countries that use compulsory drug detention for drug users. That is a great thing to track, but it is not the original target.)
  • Overall, no matter how you count it, there was almost no change on these four targets in five years. That’s depressing.

Was the original target (“reduce by half the number of countries with punitive laws”) an achievable goal? Probably not. Law reform is slow work; it would have been a massive job to overhaul this many laws in this many countries. Certainly, it would have required a whole lot more financial and political investment in human rights law and policy change: the hard work of reviewing laws and policies, advocacy, community mobilization and more.

But even if the goal was overambitious, having more rigorous and reliable reporting on the indicator would have generated data for use by governments, UN treaty bodies, UN country offices, and civil society to press for change.

Instead, what was originally a pretty-good target got buried in marshmallow fluff. Instead of sticking to the original clear target, the UNAIDS report chapter on this human rights indicator lumped in lots of other issues, and muddied the waters.

For example, the original strategy says,

Nearly two thirds of countries reported policies or laws that impede access to HIV services by certain populations.”[2]

There’s a clear baseline. What happened next?

The next year, UNAIDS reported that 60% of countries had laws or policies that impeded access to services (so like, about two thirds?). But there was good news: “Although these figures are clearly cause for concern, they are promising in another respect, since acknowledging the existence of such laws is a critical first step towards reforming them.”[3]

Or not… since the 2013 and 2015 reports had the same 60% statistic, without comment.[4]

Human rights indicators don’t fix problems. They often bring bad news. But they do focus the mind on action. A good human rights indicator is an advocacy tool that promotes transparency, accountability and action – globally, regionally, and nationally.

A weak human rights indicator—or a good one that is under-resourced and buried in noise—is actually a barrier to accountability. Something to think about for the next strategy.


[1] In some cases, the numbers provided are from tiny charts on the report PDFs and may be read incorrectly. It seems unlikely that 4 countries decriminalized sex work between 2011-14.

[2] UNAIDS Getting to Zero, p. 43.

[3] UNAIDS Global AIDS Progress Report 2012, p. 82.

[4] UNAIDS Global AIDS Progress Report 2013, p. 89; UN Secretary General report to the UN General Assembly 2015, paragraph 52.

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