The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health called for the repeal of punitive laws that conflate sex work and trafficking on Monday, warning they are impeding efforts to slow the spread of HIV in Southeast Asia.
Anand Grover cited Cambodia's 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation as an example of punitive laws that had set back the fight against HIV.
He was speaking at a press conference at the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, in which the UN called for the removal of all laws that hinder effective HIV interventions.
The rapporteur, an independent expert, also took aim at the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), indicating the Cambodian government is not alone in its difficulty in tackling trafficking without stepping on the rights of sex workers.
Grover condemned a programme in India in which police had been trained by the UNODC to "rescue and rehabilitate" brothel workers as "unacceptable".
He cited one case in which police took 47 sex workers from Delhi brothels against their will and kept them in "the hellhole of Calcutta". Twenty-five managed to escape.
"It is unacceptable, and it is a consequence of conflating sex work with trafficking," Grover said. "Unfortunately, it is instituted by international pressures, and it is based on prejudice and ideology."
Jeffrey O'Malley, director of the HIV/AIDS team at the United Nations Development Programme, said the introduction of anti-trafficking legislation in Cambodia changed the patterns of sex work but did not change the number of commercial sex transactions.
He called for a global end to police interference in the delivery of essential HIV prevention programmes and services to any high-risk groups, including men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who use drugs, prisoners and detainees.
The removal of punitive laws was identified by UNAIDS, the UN's joint programme on HIV and AIDS, as one of nine priorities to slow the spread of HIV, O'Malley told reporters.
"AIDS is going to be with us for at least the next 20 years. We need cost-effective and sustainable approaches to HIV prevention and treatment," he said.
Kyung Wah-kang, the UN's deputy high commissioner for human rights, said issues surrounding the decriminalisation of prostitution were complex but called for governments in the region to take a human rights- and public health-centred approach to all laws involving communities at risk of HIV infection.
"Members of these vulnerable groups do not forfeit their human rights just by belonging to these groups," she said.
O'Malley said crafting legislation to crack down on human trafficking without catching sex workers in the net was a challenge, but pointed to the recent decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand as an example of how it could be achieved.
Nathan Green, who has been reporting from Bali since last Monday, travelled to Indonesia on a UNAIDS-funded trip.