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amnesty in policy: amnesty international supports decriminalising sex work

Image: Tom Morris

Image: Tom Morris

Amnesty International has voted in support of advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work. ‘Sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse,’ the organisation said in a statement. ‘This [is] the best way to defend sex workers’ human rights and lessen the risk of abuse and violations they face.’

Delegates at the organisation’s International Council Meeting in Dublin voted on the motion last week. The outcome means the ICM calls upon Amnesty’s international board to ‘adopt a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work’.

Advocates for sex workers’ rights around the world have supported the resolution. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects and the International Union of Sex Workers support the decriminalisation of sex work. The decision has also brought Amnesty’s policy in line with that of the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and Human Rights Watch.

The support is not, however, unanimous. In late July the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) sent an open letter to Amnesty International, condemning the proposed policy. The letter states that decriminalisation ‘in effect legalises pimping, brothel owning and sex buying… and renders brothel owners “businessmen” who with impunity facilitate the trafficking of very young women predominantly from the poorest countries of Eastern Europe and the Global South to meet the increased demand for prostitution’.

The issue of trafficking is raised by Amnesty’s resolution, stating ‘states have the obligation to prevent and combat trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and to protect the human rights of victims of trafficking’. Amnesty has elsewhere attested their belief decriminalisation will help reduce trafficking through greater collaboration and transparency between sex workers and law enforcement.

Amnesty’s resolution references the WHO and UN’s advocacy for decriminalisation on the grounds that it significantly reduces the transmission rates of HIV. Fear of fines or imprisonment means many sex workers will not see a doctor to be diagnosed or treated. Decriminalisation would enable the provision of safe and regulated working conditions, including constant access to condoms.

Amnesty’s change in policy is in keeping with its role as a human rights organisation. Decriminalisation improves sex workers’ access to justice. It ensures sex workers do not have to deal with criminal convictions and the significant constraints these put on their housing and job opportunities. In some American jurisdictions, individuals convicted of sex work related offences are registered as sex offenders, making access to education loans, public housing and alternative work extremely limited.  Studies done in the US show how the criminalising of sex work disproportionately affects non-white and transgender sex workers who experience particularly high rates of profiling, false arrest, violence and harassment – often at the hands of the police.

Decriminalisation also reinforces the right of all people to privacy and freedom from undue state control over sex and sexual expression. Criminalised sex work denies workers their bodily autonomy and self-determination. These restrictions disproportionately affect women, people of colour and LGBTQIA people who partake in sex work.

The CATW letter references two distinct positions that both oppose decriminalisation but for differing reasons. Amnesty’s response is built on the premise that there are sex workers whose profession is an entirely liberated and informed choice.  CATW and other opponents of legalised sex work argue that these individuals form such a small proportion of sex workers worldwide that they cannot be the justification for decriminalisation.

The second objection to decriminalisation evoked by the letter is that it legitimises a practice that is inherently immoral. The letter’s concern with the legalising of pimps and brothels refers to the “Nordic Model” of criminalisation which makes purchasing sex illegal but not the selling. The intention behind the model is to both protect the sex workers and foster a cultural norm that discourages the purchase of sex. Many opponents of decriminalisation argue that the commodification of sex is innately destructive regardless of how is regulated.

Neither Amnesty, nor the UN and the WHO, have used this objection as a premise for their policies. To do so would be to suggest that the selling and purchase of sex could somehow be eradicated. It would also require tolerating the violence, isolation, illness and poverty that currently define much of international sex work. Continuing to prosecute only ensures that the existing system remains unchanged and that already marginalised groups remain disenfranchised.

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