Laws which prohibit and punish homosexuality are hindering efforts to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS throughout the Commonwealth, and changing these laws presents a bold new challenge for Australia's leaders.
This was the message conveyed at today's (30 November) launch of a report by HIV expert John Godwin, titled Enabling Legal Environments for Effective HIV Responses: A Leadership Challenge for the Commonwealth.
Godwin's report, which was produced for the Commonwealth HIV/AIDS Action Group and coincides with World AIDS Day on 1 December, provides a confronting insight into how Commonwealth countries approach and regulate numerous activities, which in turn contributes to the spread of the disease.
And according to the report's statistics, HIV and AIDS is a problem primarily within the domain of the Commonwealth.
"Commonwealth countries have 60 per cent of the world's AIDS cases, but only 30 per cent of the population," said The Honourable Michael Kirby, who officially launched the report in Sydney.
"Yet they are amongst the most resistant to moves to remove legal impediments to effective strategies to fight the epidemic."
According to Kirby, Australia, which is due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in October next year, has a responsibility to bring "our good fortune and our experience and its outcomes" in relation to our relative success in dealing with HIV and AIDS to the attention of other Commonwealth countries.
He also acknowledged that this will be an enormous challenge.
"There are no more important human rights than the right to life and access to essential health care. However, the sad fact is that many, probably most, Commonwealth countries are presently resistant to taking essential steps that will help turn around the AIDS epidemic in the developing world," said Kirby.
"How can you possibly secure self-empowerment and behaviour modification without removing the laws and stigma against those in society who are most at risk of HIV infection?"
According to Godwin, there are four primary issues emerging from the report which hinder efforts to fight the disease: the prevalence of offences relating to the transmission of the disease, the fact that sodomy is outlawed in 42 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, the criminalisation of the sex trade in many Commonwealth countries, and inadequate approaches to dealing with drug use.
And while Godwin acknowledged that his conclusions are not entirely new, he said the extent of the problem within the Commonwealth requires a more Commonwealth-centric analysis and approach.
"This report is not the first time these arguments have been made. You can go back to 1996 and see the international guidelines on HIV and human rights ... The UN has been making these arguments through their agencies for over a decade now," he said.
"What's different about this report is that it squarely focuses on the Commonwealth countries and looks at how they're performing and what can be done through Commonwealth institutions and associations, and the processes around CHOGM, to turn the trend towards punitive laws around and to make progress."
Kirby said the key is for Australia to show other countries that good governance and smart approaches to HIV and AIDS can prevent the spread of the disease.
"This is a matter of leadership. Fortunately in Australia, when the epidemic came along, we had leadership, and we had it from both the Labor party and the Coalition. We've had a really good policy ... and that is what we've got to try to export," he said.
"It won't happen by banging the table. It will happen by appealing to a rational understanding of what causes the spread of the epidemic and what has to be done, what has succeeded and what has failed."
However, the magnitude of the task - which effectively requires persuading countries to change laws which are steeped in colonial tradition, religion and culture - is not lost on either Godwin or Kirby.
"Law reform, of course, is a long process," said Godwin.
"Achieving change ... is an ambitious and lengthy project. It's likely to be long term. Hopefully this report gets us off in the right direction."
And while the responsibility to provide leadership may lie with countries like Australia, Kirby made the point that other governments must also face facts and act accordingly.
"In the end, you can lead a country to water but you can't force it to drink. That is going to be the challenge for the CHOGM next October," he said.
"[You ask] what hope is there? Is it just too difficult? Should we all just give up? Well, that is not the nature of human beings, particularly where life and basic health care are involved.
"[But] developed countries of the world cannot be expected to provide ever-expanding funds to countries that will not help themselves by taking the essential steps to reduce the stigma and increase knowledge and awareness."