Amnesty International Accused Of 'Prostitution Free-For-All' As it Votes On Decriminalising Sex Trade

Ex-Prostitutes Say Amnesty International Is 'Rolling The Dice' With Its Reputation

UPDATE: Amnesty International voted to support the decriminalisation of sex work on Tuesday afternoon.

Its International Council Meeting in Dublin approved plans to develop a policy advocating full decriminalisation and call on governments to "ensure sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation".

“We recognise that this critical human rights issue is hugely complex and that is why we have addressed this issue from the perspective of international human rights standards. We also consulted with our global movement to take on board different views from around the world,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general.

Amnesty International has been accused of encouraging a prostitution "free-for-all" by proposing to support the complete decriminalisation the sex trade.

A vote at today's Amnesty council meeting in Dublin will decide whether the world's best-known human rights organisation will adopt a policy calling for all global laws against prostitution to be removed - meaning those who sell sex and those who buy it would not face prosecution.

The divisive idea has led to a group of ex-prostitutes saying Amnesty is “rolling the dice very seriously with their own reputation".

Sex workers at a demonstration in Paris in June supporting the decriminalisation of prostitution

Amnesty acknowledges "this is a divisive, sensitive and complex issue and it is important that we get it right" and has been working for two years on its policy with groups including UN agencies, sex worker groups and HIV/AIDS activists.

But Rachel Moran from SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment), who was prostituted from the age of 15 in Ireland, said she strongly opposed the proposed policy, "firstly because what Amnesty are doing here is endorsing human rights violation on a global level".

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, she said "the purchase of sexual access to a person's body is and of itself a human rights violation," adding that it was classed as a violation by the United Nations.

Moran claimed that countries like New Zealand, where prostitution has been decriminalised, have seen more reports of violence against women since doing so. "What we see on the streets of New Zealand in the brothels and the red light zones makes it incredibly clear that it would be a very wrong footed move to make".

She warned that Amnesty was “rolling the dice very seriously with their own reputation" by considering the move.

But Niki Adaams from the English Prostitutes Collective disagreed. “I think that Amnesty’s policy is extremely good, it’s extremely well-researched,” she told Today.

The English Prostitutes Collective supports the full decriminalisation of prostitution. In contrast to Moran, Adaams argued that when New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2003 a government review found that attacks against prostitutes reduced and their health improved.

A sex shop in London's red light district in Soho

When quizzed on whether decriminalising prostitution would effectively make sex trafficking and child abuse decriminalised, she disagreed, pointing out that prostitution is “the consenting sex between adults when it’s exchanged for money”.

“They're talking about consenting sex between adults,” Adaams said, adding that the Amnesty draft policy focuses very clearly on "the harm that criminlistation causes”.

For example, Adaams argued, laws in the UK criminalising third parties from being involved in prostitution, which prohibit a group of prostitutes working together from one premises are "crazy – of course its much safer to work with somebody that to work on your own."

Many sex worker-led organisations support decriminalising prostitution, saying it frees those working in the industry from prosecution and helps them access legal support and services.

In June, Amnesty made clear in a statement clarifying its draft policy that: "The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection."

It added that: "The consultation doesn't change Amnesty's long-standing position that forced labour and human trafficking constitute serious human rights abuses and must be criminalised. Under international law, states have obligations to prevent, suppress and punish human trafficking, especially of women and children, and Amnesty will continue to call for this."

But Moran maintained that “criminliastion and its sister legalisation have done the exact opposite” of making women safer: "It also decriminalises pimping and brothel keeping. What we’re talking about about is a free-for-all”.

The draft policy will be voted on at Amnesty International’s main decision-making forum, the International Council Meeting (ICM), which has been taking place in Dublin this week.

If the policy is voted in, it will need approval from Amnesty's board before a final policy is developed.

A research report last week from the right-leaning UK think tank The Institute for Economic Affairs called for prostitution to be decriminalised, but was called "ludicrous" by feminists and a former prostitute.

The 'Supply And Desire' research called for Britain's £4 billion sex industry to be completely decriminalised. It said that "all attempts to regulate prostitution are ineffective, ill-informed and a waste of public money" and that women working in prostitution would be safer if laws prohibiting the business were removed.

But former prostitute Diane Martin CBE called the report "ludicrous and offensive", for claiming that the sex trade will never end because men's need to buy sex is "ineradicable".

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