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 Only: Amnesty International hasn't taken any position on the bill, and in fact has demanded their name be withdrawn.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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.