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Amnesty International Backs Legalization of Prostitution in Historic Vote

CC-Jose Pereira

Carolyn Moynihan - published on 08/11/15 - updated on 06/07/17

"Human rights" organization approves decriminalization of sex-trafficking

Breaking News:  Amnesty International voted today, August 11, in favor of a proposal that would decriminalize prostitution.

Delegates at an international conference of Amnesty International are due to vote on a proposal that Amnesty should advocate the full decriminalisation of prostitution. That’s right; the organisation founded to shame governments into releasing prisoners of conscience, might next week be lobbying states to remove the last shackles from a trade that most people still regard as shameful. And all in the name of human rights.

This drama is to play out in Dublin, the new world capital of sexual enlightenment, while from Hollywood and other benighted locations the protests of celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and 1960s feminist icon Gloria Steinem ring out in support of women’s groups that are appalled at this development.

Since its early days Amnesty’s mission has evolved to cover a wide field of human rights, and this is the basis of its argument for the removal of penalties not only for sellers of sex, which is already widely accepted, but also for buyers and brothel keepers, which is not. The rights in question range from physical integrity and health, through “just and favourable conditions of work”, to privacy and freedom of (sexual) expression. Together they amount to a human right to buy and sell sex.

According to a leaked draft policy circulating since early last year, legal sanctions, even when limited to bans on street work and corralling of “sex work” into red light districts, contravene the freedom of “sex workers” and their clients to express themselves, and undermine conditions supporting the health and safety of the “workers” and other basic rights such as decent housing.

However, in drawing the blanket of human rights over what has always been regarded as a human weakness, Amnesty risks debasing the concept while exposing even more people to real human rights abuses. And by refusing to talk about human dignity (I could not find the word in the draft document), the organisation closes off a moral perspective that still has meaning for society.

The UN was there first

Yet Amnesty would not be the first to take this path. Various arms of the United NationsThe Lancet medical journal and The Economist magazine are just the more respectable advocates of this step, and several jurisdictions have taken it already. Among them are Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales. In these places, although there are varying degrees of regulation to reduce its social impact (since not everybody is happy to have a brothel next door), both the buying and selling of sex are treated as legitimate behaviour for adults. Officially, anyway, prostitution has become “sex work” and has its own unions and political voice.

In many ways decriminalisation seems the natural policy for our post-modern era: driven by personal choice, sexually amoral, hard-headed and materialistic – qualities celebrated by The Economist in its long campaign for decriminalisation. According to that magazine the internet is transforming the trade from a seedy and – thanks largely to prohibition – very risky one into something finely-tuned, brand conscious and “more like a normal service industry”. Governments, it says, should get out of the way and let consenting adults do what they want. It would pour billions more into the economy.
But this approach runs totally counter to what women’s rights and anti-trafficking groups have been advocating for more than a decade, and they are furious with Amnesty’s leadership for making common cause, as they see it, with libertarians, pimps and traffickers.

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