Buying Sex Is a Human Right? Amnesty International Endorses ‘Decriminalization' of Prostitution

Patrick Goodenough | August 12, 2015 | 4:16am EDT
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Suspected prostitutes at a nightclub in Beijing, China during a police inspection. (AP Photo/EyePress, File)

( – Amnesty International, long the darling of the non-governmental human rights movement, has sparked an uproar with a decision to endorse the decriminalization of prostitution, infuriating women’s groups who accuse it of essentially characterizing pimping and the buying of sex as a human right.

Meeting in Dublin, Ireland, the AI’s 400-member international council passed a resolution Tuesday authorizing the group’s board to adopt a policy supporting the full “decriminalization of sex work” around the world.

At the same time it said governments “have the obligation to prevent and combat trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.”

An AI spokesperson told the vote had “passed with a comfortable majority” but declined to give a breakdown of the vote, “because we take seriously the confidentiality of the democratic process our delegates engaged with at the [meeting].”

AI secretary-general Salil Shetty acknowledged afterwards it was “not a decision that was reached easily or quickly,” but also called it “a historic day for Amnesty International.”

“Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue,” he said.

Hundreds of women’s organizations, human rights and faith-based groups, victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking, medical doctors, actors and celebrities signed an appeal to AI earlier urging it not to adopt the contentious policy.

That initiative was spearheaded by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which in a tweet after the vote expressed its dismay: “By calling pimping brothel owning and sex buying a human right [AI] has lost its right to uphold the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights],” it said. “Their soul is w[ith] the sex trade.”

CATW argued earlier that if adopted, the “policy would in effect advocate the legalization of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying – the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry.”

Responding on Twitter to the AI vote, a group of sex-trade survivors called Space (“Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment”) International asked the human rights organization a series of questions:

“[H]ow do you propose telling the difference between consent and no consent? How do you propose policing that?” and “[W]hat if a person tells police they are consenting but they are under control of a pimp and afraid for their lives?”

Rachel Moran, an Irish woman prostituted between the ages of 15-22 who campaigns against the trade, tweeted, “Amnesty International have just voted to protect rights of pimps & johns worldwide. They better be ready for a 30 year fight, because I am.”

‘Exercising personal autonomy’

At an earlier stage of a lengthy process leading up to Tuesday’s vote, an AI policy document on the topic was leaked. Some of its contents shocked women’s advocates.

 “Sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need,” said one footnote in the leaked document. “To criminalize those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill that need through more traditionally recognized means and thus purchase sex, may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.”

Prostitutes at a brothel in Tangail city, Bangladesh. (AP Photo, File)

The document also stated that outlawing sex between consenting adults, whether paid for or not, “threatens the rights to health, non-discrimination, equality, privacy, and security of person.”

The excerpt that prompted the most criticism advanced the argument that “men and women who buy sex from consenting adults are also exercising personal autonomy.”

“For some – in particular persons with mobility or sensory disabilities or those with psycho-social disabilities that hamper social interactions – sex workers are persons with whom they feel safe enough to have a physical relationship or to express their sexuality. Some develop a stronger sense of self in their relationships with sex workers, improving their life enjoyment and dignity,” it said.

“At a very basic level, expressions of sexuality and sex are a primary component of the human experience, which is directly linked to individuals’ physical and mental health. The state’s interference with an adult’s strategy to have sex with another consenting adult is, therefore, a deliberate interference with those individuals’ autonomy and health.”

A question-and-answer document posted by AI’s branch in the United States on Tuesday confronted claims that the new policy protects pimps.

“Our policy is not about protecting ‘pimps.’ Third parties that exploit or abuse sex workers will still be criminalized under the model we are proposing,” it says. “But there are overly broad laws, like those against ‘brothel keeping’ or ‘promotion’ that are often used against sex workers and criminalize actions they take to try and stay safe.”

And in response to the question, “Why does Amnesty International believe that paying for sex work is a human right?” it says, “Our policy is not about the rights of buyers of sex – it is entirely focused on protecting sex workers who face a range of human rights violations that are linked to criminalization.”

AI says its research on the matter included material from and consultation with U.N. agencies, women’s rights groups, sex-workers groups, anti-trafficking agencies, HIV/AIDS organizations and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists.

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