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.

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 Only: Amnesty International hasn't taken any position on the bill, and in fact has demanded their name be withdrawn.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.

A couple wrapped in the Scottish flag look down on the Scottish Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?