Amnesty International has voted in favour of a proposal that would mean adults who buy sex from prostitutes would not face criminal sanctions.
The human rights organisation has been at loggerheads with Hollywood stars such as Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep after an internal document was leaked suggesting that all sex work should be decriminalised.
It sparked huge debate with thousands signing an open petition against the move, which they believed supported pimps and would have a negative impact on the rights of sex workers.
But after extensive consultation, Amnesty has decided to now make that proposal official at an International Council Meeting with delegates from around the world.
“Sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world, who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paves 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,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“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.”
The organisation’s view is that existing laws around prostitution, such as the ‘Nordic Model’ where sex workers are decriminalised but clients and pimps still face criminal sanctions for buying sex, still create problems for sex workers.
Sex workers can find it difficult to rent accommodation, as their landlords could be charged with pimping, and are often evicted with little notice if the police are involved.
The law also prevents a number of sex workers living together, as their home could then be classified as a brothel, and so they are forced to work alone.
Another issue is that their customers may pressure them to meet in unsafe locations to avoid being caught by the police, which can put the sex worker at risk.
“This is a historic day for Amnesty International,” Shetty added. “It was not a decision that was reached easily or quickly and we thank all our members from around the world, as well as all the many groups we consulted, for their important contribution to this debate. They have helped us reach an important decision that will shape this area of our human rights work going forward.”
The organisation said it had “drawn from an extensive evidence base from sources including UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health” over a two-year consultation period.
The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), a US based women’s rights organisation, welcomed Amnesty’s decision.
Serra Sippel, CHANGE’s president, commented: “Today marks a victory for sex workers everywhere. CHANGE is proud to stand with Amnesty International and its recommendation to its Board. Decriminalisation of sex work is a critical step to protect the human rights of sex workers.
It is also good health policy, as research has shown that decriminalisation of sex work can reduce HIV infections globally. Human rights are universal and for everyone, sex workers included.”
A Telegraph poll found that 78 per cent of 5,073 voters agreed that all sex work should be decriminalised – even for pimps and clients.
Just eight per cent voted in favour of the ‘Nordic model’ and 14 per cent said that sex work should not be decriminalised.
Rachel Moran, founder of SPACE International (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment), is against decriminalising people who buy sex.
She said that by voting in favour of the proposal, Amnesty “condoned human rights violations for millions of women and girls around the world, and torpedoed their own reputation in the process.”
She added: “It is unthinkable to us that Amnesty International would see fit to decriminalise the men who bought and sold us in prostitution and the men who continue to abuse women and girls globally to this day.”
Amnesty’s decision to support the decriminalisation of sex work has been controversial.
Photo: PETER PROBST/ALAMY
Its initial proposal suggested that it was in favour of decriminalising the process of buying sex as it would help clients ‘exercise personal autonomy’ and essentially, support their basic human right to have consensual sex however they want.
The document stated: “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….
“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.”
Catherine Murphy, a policy advisor at Amnesty International who was heavily involved in creating the document, previously admitted to the Telegraph that this was no longer in the updated document.
“The policy has really evolved,” she said. “It’s a two-year old document put together for consideration. We now have a much more nuanced proposal which is much clearer and we have learned so much from the feedback.
“I don’t think any of those issues [about the rights of pimps and buyers] are any longer part of the document.”
She said she knew just how controversial the proposal was but that Amnesty would stick by it to protect the rights of sex workers.
“We will face criticism for this and people do feel very passionately on either position on this issue and it’s difficult, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at this. We can’t just shy away from having this discussion because it’s difficult.
“We know it’s controversial and people have very strong feelings on this but our responsibility is to look at human rights abuses and how to stop them.”