The case for protecting sex workers through decriminalisation of prostitution

Amnesty International has continued a gradual redefinition of its own understanding of human rights and its remit as a campaign group

 

The decision last Tuesday by Amnesty International’s biennial conference in Dublin to support the decriminalisation of the sex trade, including prostitution, payment for sex and brothel ownership, represents an important, albeit controversial, contribution to a debate that is currently very much live in this country. The group’s resolution called for a policy that “supports the full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work.” In embracing the human rights of sex workers, the delegates from 60 countries also continued the gradual redefinition of the organisation’s own understanding of human rights in their broadest sense and its remit as a campaign group.

Where Amnesty goes beyond the reforms proposed in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2014, currently before the Dáil, is in opposing the idea, based on the Swedish model, that tackling prostitution is best done by criminalising the purchase of sex rather than its sale. That approach, backed by an important Council of Europe report and a resolution of the European Parliament is also endorsed here by Turn Off The Red Light (TORL), an umbrella campaign to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland to which many women’s groups, groups working with sex workers, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, unions, and NGOs have affiliated.

Such campaigners, and Amnesty’s own branches in Sweden and France, reject its insistence that the buyers, organisers, and those profiting from the prostitution of others should be free from sanction. But the argument that criminalising pimps and customers also puts the women they abuse at risk and will contribute to keeping the trade in the shadows of illegality is persuasive. Attempts to improve health standards and a degree of regulation of brothels would be made significantly more difficult if the control of the industry, even the act of operating a brothel, is illegal

Moreover, the decriminalisation policy, also backed by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations AIDS programme UNAIDS, and the leading medical journal The Lancet, does not mean in any way condoning prostitution, or refusing to prosecute those involved in trafficking, child abuse, or other forms of violence against sex workers.

Amnesty’s critics also take issue with what they see as the organisation’s deeply dubious, implicit or explicit acceptance that the right to buy sex constitutes a human right arising from what one of its internal discussion documents referred to as the reality that “sexual desire and activity are a fundamental human need”. Amnesty, however dodges the issue by insisting that its concern is not with the “rights” of those buying sex, but with how best to protect sex workers , an extremely vulnerable group. Their protection requires decriminalisation of buyers and sellers.

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