Mikhail Golichenko: “HIV Epidemic in Russia is an Epidemic of Powerlessness”

Mikhail Golichenko is a lawyer and Senior Policy Analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

Author: Anastasia Petrova, Russia

We discussed the human rights issues in the context of HIV in Russia with Mikhail Golichenko. Mikhail Golichenko is a lawyer and Senior Policy Analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network — organization, which has a special consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Previously, Mikhail was a Legal Officer with the UNODC Country Office in Moscow. His work is focused on the promotion of human rights and addressing legal barriers to accessing health rights and effective HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs for prisoners and people who inject drugs. He holds a Candidate of Sciences degree (PhD equivalent) in Law.

– The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day was marked recently. What is this day about for you?

– It is a good occasion to reflect on the victims of HIV and at the same time think about our role in making sure that people who died of this disease did not die in vain.

In Tolyatti, in 2012, if I am not mistaken, on this day people traditionally went to a park, they handed out condoms, HIV awareness-raising materials, lit candles. It was all happening near the monument to the glorious heroes of the Great Patriotic War. Tolyatti is a small city and there are not many locations to hold public campaigns. It happened that during the campaign the bowl with condoms was put near the eternal fire and this fact was misinterpreted by mass media. As a result, the campaign organizers were fined for holding a mass event in close vicinity to the monument to the Great Patriotic War heroes. That is a local law in Tolyatti.

It shows that we are on different sides of the processes: the society is aware of the problem and the state doing nothing to start considering this problem from the right perspective.

Could you please tell us about the human rights situation in Russia and its implications for the HIV epidemic?

The key factor in the development of HIV epidemic in Russia is human rights violations, which make certain populations more vulnerable to HIV. People who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender persons and migrants do not have access to adequate prevention, care and support for HIV and other socially significant diseases.

Rights are the social clothes of a modern person. They are represented by the laws imposing obligations on the state. The set of human rights keeps people warm and protects them from any aggressive impacts of the social environment. Some populations, such as people who use drugs, had part of their clothes removed. So, in fact, these people have to stay naked when it is minus forty degrees Celsius outside. Of course, they get sick. We should not cherish any illusions: even if we have sterile needles and syringes on every street corner tomorrow, it will surely improve the situation, but not much. We will still have repressions, persecution of people who use drugs, which prevent people from seeking health services.

There is a similar situation with sex workers. They know that they should use condoms. However, they know that if they get beaten up by a client who insists on having sex without a condom, nobody will protect them. Police will, first of all, blame the sex worker for being involved in sex work. Sometimes it is easier not to use condoms hoping not to get infected than being beaten up knowing that it makes no sense to seek protection in the police.

As for MSM, it is the same. Now the website PARNI-PLUS, which published information on HIV prevention among men who have sex with men, has been closed. There are almost no similar sources of information in Russia. Where will people who live with their sexual identities take this information? Their vulnerability and stigma will grow. There is a direct linkage. HIV epidemic in Russia is an epidemic of powerlessness.

– Could you tell about your speech in the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities? After it, a recommendation was made to revise the approach to the drug policy in Russia…

– There have already been many such recommendations. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, then the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on Women’s Rights, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, now there will be the Committee Against Torture. The committees realize that the drug policy in Russia is one of the drivers of systematic violations and issue those recommendations.

In my opinion, the main recommendation was given in October 2017, when the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended Russia to decriminalize drug possession with no intent to distribute. The same goes for scaling up harm reduction services, legalizing substitution treatment, distributing truthful information on drugs, preventing overdoses, implementing substitution treatment for pregnant women, stopping tortures of drug users in police, in particular discontinuing the practice of using withdrawal syndrome to get evidence from detainees. Russia does not really follow all those recommendations, but the constant pressure will gradually give its results.

Our main tool is the attempt to involve government authorities in a dialogue so that people feel a certain need to introduce some changes. There is a set of clear recommendations, which are to be followed. It will certainly work. Where human rights are violated, there is no sustainability, there is a space for internal conflict, and there is no development.

What measures, in your opinion, does Russia need to take to stop the HIV epidemic?

We just need to remember that we are people. No laws are needed. There is a Constitution and it is enough. Safe coexistence is a value without which we cannot live. It is possible only with love, mutual understanding and help.

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