Amnesty urges full decriminalization of prostitution to defend sex workers’ rights

© Leonhard Foeger
Amnesty International has adopted an official policy calling on governments worldwide to fully decriminalize adult sex work in to defend the rights of sex workers. While many applauded the move, other said it was “irresponsible” and a “gift to pimps.”

“This policy does not argue that there is a human right to buy sex or a human right to financially benefit from the sale of sex by another person. Rather, it calls for sex workers to be protected from individuals who seek to exploit and harm them and it recognizes that the criminalization of adult consensual sex work interferes with the realization of the human rights of sex workers,” Amnesty International said in the report.

The paper titled “Amnesty International policy on state obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of sex workers” was published on Wednesday. The move comes nine months after the group voted in favor of the development of such a document.

The NGO believes that decriminalization of sex work remains a key step in protecting the rights of sex workers.

“Governments must act to protect the human rights of all people, sex workers included.

Decriminalization is just one of several necessary steps governments can take to ensure protection from harm, exploitation and coercion,said Tawanda Mutasah, Amnesty International’s senior director for law and policy.

The group, however, stressed that its policy does not support child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and forced labor, which should be criminalized in every country.

In addition to the policy Amnesty International published findings based on research it carried out in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Oslo and Papua New Guinea. The study found that sex workers are most at risk of coming across discrimination and oppression and “face attacks, discrimination and injustice at the hands of police, clients, exploitative third parties involved in sex work, landlords, family, community and healthcare providers.” Amnesty claimed that due to the “criminalized nature of sex work” sex workers are “forced to operate at the margins of society in clandestine and dangerous environments.”

While many human rights groups including women’s groups hailed Amnesty International’s move, others said it would only encourage pimping.

“Full decriminalization of prostitution is a gift to pimps, sex buyers, and sex traffickers,” said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “Under Amnesty International’s irresponsible policy these exploiters become mere ‘sex business operators’ and ‘customers,’ and the sexual violence and abuse inherent to prostitution is normalized as a form of ‘work.’”

Amnesty International’s decision also caused a heated debate on social media.

Amnesty initially approved a resolution recommending the “full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work” back in August 2015. At the time women’s rights groups slammed the move, arguing that it amounted to support for legalized pimping. Many sex workers also spoke out against the proposal.

Only a small minority of women looked at this kind of work as “a job like any other,” said Fiona Broadfoot, who was 15 when she was tricked into sex work by an abusive boyfriend. “The vast majority of women working in this industry are abused on a massive scale,” she said.

Co-founder of the Space International anti-sex trade group, Rachel Moran, described Amnesty’s decision as “breathtakingly disgraceful”.

The US-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women stated that, even though it agrees with Amnesty that those who are prostituted should not be criminalized, it still believes full decriminalization would support pimps as “businesspeople.”