17 May 2010More than 90 per cent of men having sex with men in the Asia-Pacific region, a group in which HIV prevalence has reached alarming levels, do not have access to prevention and care services due to an adverse legal and social environment, a United Nations-backed forum was told today. And this already critical situation is likely to become worse unless countries address the legal context of the epidemic, taking into account the effect of laws and law enforcement practices on the health of men who have sex with men and transgender persons.“The effectiveness of the HIV response will depend not just on the sustained scale-up of HIV prevention, treatment and care, but on whether the legal and social environment support or hinder programmes for those who are most vulnerable,” Mandeep Dhaliwal, UN Development Programme (UNDP) Cluster Leader on Human Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversity, told the gathering in Hong Kong.“The development and strengthening of an enabling legal and social environment is critical for comprehensive interventions for men who have sex with men and transgender people to have the greatest impact.”The forum – the High-Level Dialogue on punitive laws, human rights and HIV prevention among men who have sex with men in the Asia-Pacific region, convened by the UNDP, the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) and the Centre for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) at the University of Hong Kong – reviewed the findings of an upcoming report.According to the study – on laws affecting HIV responses among men who have sex with men and transgender persons in Asia and the Pacific – 19 of 48 countries in the region criminalize sex between men, with laws often taking on the force of vigilantism leading to abuse and human rights violations.Even in the absence of criminalization, other provisions of law often violate the rights of those concerned, thereby obstructing HIV interventions, advocacy and outreach, and service delivery. Moreover, legislation and law enforcement often lag behind national HIV policies, undermining the reach and effectiveness of programmes for men who have sex with men.This indicates the need for greater coordination between health and justice sectors within government, the report stresses. It highlighted some recent examples of protective laws, judicial and policy actions to improve the legal environment for the men concerned, including important court judgments in Fiji, India, Hong Kong, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines and the Republic of Korea. But these are exceptional developments and action is required to improve the legal environment in all countries, it warned. Panellists in the High-Level Dialogue include former national High Court Justices, and representatives from the UN system, parliaments and civil society.