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Amnesty, human rights and the criminalisation of sex work

A controversy involving a bill before the Scottish Parliament and a rogue submission by its Paisley Branch has forced Amnesty to clarify its position on the criminalisation of sex work.

A couple wrapped in the Scottish flag look down on the Scottish Parliament
A couple wrapped in the Scottish flag look down on the Scottish Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

There's a bill up for consideration in Scotland to criminalise the purchase of sex. It's part of an international wave of laws that purport to "help" people in the sex trade by arresting their source of income - their customers. Rhoda Grant MSP has now released the results of her public consultation on the bill, including mentions of Amnesty International. Only: Amnesty International hasn't taken any position on the bill, and in fact has demanded their name be withdrawn. They don't want to be associated with a law that stands to do great harm to sex workers.

These kinds of laws, variously called the “Nordic model” or “end demand”, claim that by arresting and prosecuting men who hire sex workers, they are taking a more woman-friendly or even feminist approach to sex work. In truth, using the police in this way creates fear and a greater potential for violence for sex workers: customers are reluctant to participate in negotiations around fees and safer sex, for fear of risking arrest, and sex workers find their power on the job even further curtailed. Never mind that the enforcers of “end demand” are the police, who sex workers the world over report present are a far greater threat of violence to them than customers. These laws pass because lawmakers ignore sex workers. Rhoda Grant's bill is following the same pattern.

This controversy over Amnesty's supposed endorsement, while upsetting to sex workers and advocates when first discovered, is actually an opportunity to question this entire bill's premise. The endorsement, which was submitted by a local chapter of Amnesty International called Paisley Branch, is careful to state it "does not reflect the policy of Amnesty UK", though its appearance in Grant's consultation summary is hard not to read as an Amnesty International endorsement. This Amnesty chapter has in fact defied Amnesty International in supporting Grant's bill, which senior staff at Amnesty must now publicly resolve or risk being misunderstood as supporting such a criminalisation of sex workers.

First, they've had to explain how this chapter has gone rogue. "Every group has to work within Amnesty's policy," explains Marianne Mollmann, a senior policy advisor with Amnesty International's headquarters in London. "I work for the International Secretariat, who has asked Amnesty UK to demand this group withdraw their support."

In an email written for Amnesty UK, Mollmann went further:

…though we do not take a detailed position or engage in campaigning on this issue, any public stance would, at a minimum, have to be in line with international human rights standards. In this case, this means:

1. No criminalisation of the sex worker herself or himself.

2. No criminalisation of consensual sex between adults.

3. No conflating trafficking and sex work (trafficking has a very specific definition in international law, which does not equal sex work).

Prior to this directive, Amnesty UK contacted the Paisley Branch, asking them to withdraw the submission, or, if they wished, to resubmit it with all reference to Amnesty removed. The Paisley Branch responded that they refused to withdraw support for the sex work criminalisation bill.

Since, Amnesty has also instructed the bill's originators in the Scottish parliament that the Paisley Branch's submission is not representative, eroding any appearance of a respected human rights organisation signing on to such a dangerous bill. "To reduce any scope for confusion, our office in Scotland has reiterated to Rhoda Grant's office and the Scottish Parliament Bill's Office that the submission does not reflect the views of Amnesty International and should in no way be interpreted as representative of the position of the organisation," says Amnesty UK's head of nations and regions Patrick Corrigan.

On Twitter, Amnesty UK and Amnesty Scotland also distanced themselves from the anti-sex work submission and clarified their position:

 

The Paisley Branch submission has since been amended on both the Scottish Parliament website (pdf) and Rhoda Grant's website (pdf).

While initially going rogue from Amnesty – and refusing to withdraw an anti-sex work position when instructed to do so by Amnesty UK – the Paisley Branch's endorsement of the sex work criminalisation bill also reveals a dangerous attitude at the heart of these “end demand” policies: when sex workers come forward to tell the public about their experiences in sex work, they ought not to be believed.

The Paisley Branch submission states:

One of our members works in a prison with women offenders, and she relates to a conversation she had with a young woman who had experienced prostitution of her own volition. The young woman was adamant that she was not a victim and that it had been her choice. Without wishing to patronise her in any way, her forearms were covered in so many scars it was impossible to see any unmarked flesh. To those of us who have been fortunate to have had a (fairly) stable childhood, where abuse has not damaged our understanding of bodily boundaries, her defence of ‘not being a victim’ has a hollow ring.

This is the only testimony from a sex worker cited in the Paisley Branch submission.

Sex workers and allied activists in Scotland and the UK have expressed much outrage at this justification, which – in a consultation process attempting to really understand what will happen when sex workers' customers are made criminals – appears to absolve anyone from actually speaking to sex workers, as they – like the Paisley Branch – have already decided what sex workers mean and what sex workers need. This should be an outrage to anyone who upholds women's rights and human rights.

"Amnesty International Paisley Branch robbed this young woman of her agency, re-invented her experience of her life and started shouting on her behalf over her head," wrote Jewel, a private companion in Edinburgh. "Organisations that care about human rights," wrote Jem, a sex worker rights advocate in the UK, "understand that sex workers deserve equal protection under the law, and that stigma prevents them being treated equally." Molly, a sex worker in Glasgow working with the Sex Workers' Open University, observes of the Paisley Branch: "Using a woman’s appearance to discredit what she’s telling you about her own life is totally a feminist act, because reasons."

The Paisley Branch's support of Rhoda Grant's bill departs even further from recognisable human rights advocacy. They recommend that, as a deterrent, men who buy sex should be "subject to notification requirements under the Sex Offences Act" (a sex offender registry, of the type for which Human Rights Watch has urged reform). They also urge public shaming of men who buy sex: "Most men who choose to behave in this way, do so because they can. If they knew their families, friends and work colleagues could find out what they were doing, we believe that would be sufficient deterrent."

Not only is Amnesty International Paisley Branch's actions out of line with Amnesty International, they're out of step with human rights organisations globally, who are coming around in what looks like quick succession to support sex workers' rights and to oppose criminalisation.

"Human Rights Watch has concluded that ending the criminalisation of sex work is critical to achieving public health and human rights goals," they stated in a report published with the Journal of the International AIDS Society this May. United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona recently recommended that criminal provisions related to sex work be repealed during a mission to Namibia. She joins several other UN and UN-affiliated bodies – including UNAIDS  and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law – who urge lawmakers to end the criminalisation of sex work.

We still must ask, how does this “end demand” approach have any influence at all? "This is like any issue that has to do with non-reproductive sex," said Amnesty's Marianne Mollman. "And it's also like abortion: people get uncomfortable. But as far as human rights are concerned, the harm reduction-based groups are on-board. That's the direction governments will go: with the evidence."

What Amnesty International Paisley Branch have done – perhaps entirely despite themselves – is to push Amnesty International to state their opposition to the criminalisation of sex workers and of adult consensual sex more clearly. It should be understood as a loss for the Rhoda Grants of this world, who continue to claim despite evidence to the contrary that it's of benefit to sex workers to use law enforcement to regulate their work, and who ally themselves with those who are happy to speak for – and contradict – sex workers.

So here's to you, Paisley Branch, on behalf of sex workers in Scotland and around the world, who can absolutely speak for themselves, and who can now claim Amnesty International in their corner.

You can read an article by Rhoda Grant MSP, making the case for the Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex Bill here

Editor's note: This article originally stated that the Paisley Branch submission remained unchanged on the Scottish Parliament and Rhoda Grant MSP's websites. This was incorrect, and has been amended.