Amnesty International to Weigh Decriminalization of Prostitution

By Svetlana Shkolnikova, Staff Writer

One of the world's oldest human rights organizations will take a stance this month on the world's oldest profession, holding a vote on a new draft policy that advocates the full decriminalization of sex work.

Amnesty International delegates from more than 80 countries will gather in Dublin from Aug. 7 to 11 to decide whether the organization should pursue an official policy that would call on government leaders to remove all penalties for prostitution, for both workers and their clients.

The organization arrived at its contentious position after conducting research in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Oslo and Papua New Guinea that showed "criminalization, in its varying forms, exposes sex workers to increased risk of human rights abuses," including harassment and extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced HIV testing and medical interventions and discrimination in housing, education, health care and other social services. NGOs, activists, law enforcement and government officials and other stakeholders also weighed in on the two-year study.

"This is a divisive, sensitive and complex issue and it is important that we get it right," wrote Amnesty International in a statement on July 29. "Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world so it is important that we understand how, as Amnesty International, we can work to support their human rights."

Opinion on the proposal has been fiercely and almost evenly split.

Women's groups and anti-trafficking activists like The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) strongly believe that full decriminalization will increase human trafficking and buttress an industry that is inherently exploitive and a "cause and consequence of gender inequality." Nearly 7,000 organizations and individuals have endorsed that view on an online petition.

Sex workers themselves have been largely supportive of Amnesty International's position, with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers (ICRSE) arguing that penalizing clients pushes their industry further into the shadows and makes sex workers vulnerable to abuse by law enforcement. A petition urging the organization to stand firm has close to 8,000 signatures.

Amnesty International's draft policy on sex work can be viewed here.