Norway has become the latest country targeted in a growing global movement to eliminate HIV criminalization laws, many of which have been attributed to promoting stigma surrounding the virus and, therefore, discouraging people from seeking testing and treatment.

An anonymous nonprofit Norwegian AIDS activist group called HIV Manifesto distributed an international call-to-action on January 9. The group was seeking signatures of support to convince the Norwegian Parliament to abolish Section 155 of its Penal Code, which the group believes unfairly criminalizes people living with HIV.

The section states, “Any person who has sufficient cause to believe that he is a bearer of a generally contagious disease that is hazardous to public health, willfully or negligently infects or exposes another person to the risk of infection shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six years if the offence is committed willfully and to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years if the offense is committed negligently.*”

It continues, “Any person who aids and abets such an offense shall be liable to the same penalty. If the aggrieved person is one of the offender’s next of kin, a public prosecution shall be instituted only at the request of the aggrieved person unless it is required in the public interest.”

The effects of vague, uninformed HIV criminalization are far-reaching, and they undermine prevention and treatment efforts around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 10 countries enforce criminal laws concerning HIV in their alleged attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. One such law levies criminal charges against women who don’t take measures to prevent transmission of the virus to their offspring, while numerous churches in Nigeria have adopted a “no test, no marriage” law by which potential brides and grooms are required to take HIV tests before they can wed.

Even in the United States, men and women are charged for potential HIV exposure in circumstances where transmission is not possible. In May 2008, Willie Campbell, an HIV-positive homeless man in Dallas, was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct after spitting in the face of the arresting officer. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison for harassing a public servant because his saliva was deemed a “deadly weapon,” despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) assertion that saliva has never resulted in HIV transmission.

The Norwegian manifesto is in direct response to the Justice Advisory Group of the Norwegian Parliament’s recently proposed revision of the Penal Code. According to HIV Manifesto, while the revision is “less strict” and has “slightly modified” Section 155, “the criminalization of HIV will continue.”

The group asserts this is because the Penal Code, which was introduced in 1902 to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, as of late has been applied only in cases specifically concerning HIV and is often referred to as the “HIV paragraph.” Section 155 has never been documented as a preventative measure. On the contrary, the number of reported HIV infections in Norway has increased from 238 to 299 since 2003, when the maximum penalty was increased from three to six years.

Accordingly, Norwegian Parliament member Anette Trettebergstuen said, “The Penal Code is not efficient as a means of reducing HIV infections. Statistics show us clearly that the numbers of new diagnoses have increased in recent years since the criminalization was initiated. Information and knowledge are the right way to go, not threats of criminal prosecutions.”

Likewise, South African Supreme Court Judge Edwin Cameron called the manifesto an “important, well-written, informative, inspirational piece of work.” In a recent interview with advocacy group HIV Norway, Cameron went on to state, “Stigmatization is the driving force behind these laws. And the laws are themselves further increasing the stigma. The Norwegian paragraph clearly is discriminating against HIV-positive people. It claims to regulate several diseases, but in reality it is only being used against HIV. The government’s suggested revision will not make any significant change or improvement.”

Consequently, HIV Manifesto believes that revising Section 155 is not enough; instead, it wants the section completely removed from Norway’s Penal Code to prevent any future revisions from targeting HIV-positive Norwegians.

“To our knowledge,” stated HIV Manifesto, “this is the first time anyone has produced a manifesto aimed at abolishing the criminalization of HIV. We are working toward a goal bigger than removing this paragraph: toward a reality, a future, where HIV is considered a medical diagnosis. Period. One that comes without stigma and all the social burdens we see in various cultures today. It was not so long ago that cancer was considered a shame, and people withered and died at home behind drawn curtains. Today, the stigma has vanished from that diagnosis. In a not so distant future, we are convinced, the same will be the case regarding HIV. We want to accelerate this process. It has been going on too long and has caused, and still causes, immense suffering, from gay men to housewives to African mothers.”

In light of HIV-criminalization issues such as those addressed by HIV Manifesto, questions arise as to when punishment is in fact appropriate. Where should a government draw the line ethically? Does it have a fiduciary duty to punish for willing intent, or only after that willing intent results in infection? Perhaps the Norwegian manifesto will inspire other governing bodies to at last resolve such persistently unsettling dilemmas.

To learn more about the manifesto, please go to

*Translation provided by Inger-Lise Hognerud of behalf of HIV Norge.