Human Rights Watch calls for repeal of forcible medical testing and discrimination in Greece

Human Rights Watch released a report on July 4,condemning the use of mandatory health examinations, isolation, and compulsory treatment in Greece, which has been reinstated into law on July 26, upon reappointment of Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis.

Health Regulation No. GY/39A, “Amendments that Concern the Restriction of Transmission of Infectious Diseases,” permits police to detain people without due process for the testing of HIV and other diseases of public health importance, focusing on certain priority groups, including anyone suspected of being a sex worker, intravenous drug users, undocumented migrants, and anyone living without “minimum standards” of hygiene, such as the homeless.

Since the bill was first introduced in April 2012, until April of this year when it was temporarily repealed, dozens of women suspected of being sex workers were forced to take HIV tests. When found positive, they were charged with the felony of “intentional grievous bodily harm,” or “attempted bodily harm” for having unprotected sex with customers.  The police and media published their photographs, HIV status, and personal information, and detained many of these women for months while they awaited trial. In March 2013, almost a full year after the crackdown, the last five of these women were acquitted by the courts, which found “no strong evidence” for charges of intentional harm.

International human rights conventions and protocols state that forcible medical testing is a violation of bodily integrity and autonomy. Furthermore, discriminatory detention without due process for the sole purpose of conducting compulsory medical procedures is a violation of the right to liberty

In May 2012, Human Rights Watch, the European AIDS Treatment Group, and Positive Voice – Greek Association of People Living with HIV – wrote a joint letter to the UN Special rapporteur about these human rights abuses in Greece. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UNAIDS Guidelines on HIV and the Law have stated their opposition to forcible HIV testing and quarantine, and advocate for the elimination of stigma and discrimination. The WHO Regional Office in Europe and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control also recommend that Greece reexamine the discriminatory manner in which it enforces its public health measures, while stating that the stringent regulation and licensing of sex work in Greece makes it “practically impossible to exercise sex work legally.”

Amnesty International condemns the criminalisation and stigmatisation of alleged sex workers who were found to be HIV positive. Ruth Morgan Thomas and Chi Mgbako have also written about the Greek health regulations in the context of the global sex worker movement.

Stigma fuels the HIV epidemic in Africa, and makes it more difficult for public health organisations to prevent the spread of AIDS. According to Human Rights Watch, many independent organisations in Greece have informed HRW that after the 2012 arrests and public health regulations, the increased stigma, discrimination, and potential for detention and quarantine have deterred people at risk of HIV from coming forth to seek voluntary testing and treatment, resulting in negative public health consequences.

In a time of austerity measures, Greece’s reduced health spending poses a much deadlier threat to public health, which has already seen a spike of malaria and HIV. Instead of putting public money towards the policing of health regulations, the new Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis should consider reinvesting this money in the Greek public health care system.