Why does Amnesty need a policy on prostitution?

A group of people, mainly women, holding glasses of what looks like champaigne. One of them is holding a yellow rosette.Last week, Amnesty International adopted a policy supporting the decriminalisation of the sex trade after a debate in which it was subjected to intense lobbying from two groups of feminists (amid renewed mud-slinging between them; the two groups are the same as the pro- and anti-transgender feminist groups), one of which supports it because it claims a large proportion of ‘sex workers’ are in the business out of choice and need safer working conditions, while another regards the trade as inherently exploitative and abusive, questions the ‘choices’ that led to most of the women coming into the industry, and supports a “Nordic model” in which the selling of sex (mostly done by women) is decriminalised but the buying of it (mostly done by men) is a criminal offence. When Amnesty adopted the policy, feminists (those who had opposed it) denounced it as voting “in favour of pimps and johns over women’s human right to safety”; particular distaste was expressed for the spectacle of Amnesty staff sharing a bottle of champagne (!) after the vote was passed. This is how Amnesty justified their new policy.

This is the second time that I’ve noticed Amnesty International straying into areas far beyond what they were set up to address, which is the violation of the political human rights of peaceful people. When I was first introduced to them at school in the 1990s, their two principal activities were campaigning to free people who were imprisoned for the peaceful expression of political or religious views, and the abolition of capital punishment and opposition to the execution of individuals, guilty or otherwise. The latter policy was introduced because, as someone who came to talk to us at college said, it was not evil murderers that got it, but poor and mentally disabled people, often innocent or mentally ill, who could not afford proper legal defence, and often for political reasons. Some of the requests for letters in such cases did provoke anger from members, as in one case where the magazine printed an alert about a murderer in Guatemala who was facing the death penalty, and it was a multiple, sexually aggravated murder; but their reasoning was pretty sound as far as the United States was concerned (and the politically-motivated execution of a mentally disabled offender was a factor in its abolition in the UK).

In the last few years, however, they seem to have morphed into a generic liberal human rights campaign group — the letter-writing campaigns to free political prisoners are no longer prominent on their website — and this tendency has been long in development. In 1992 their British magazine Amnesty carried an extract from the book Princess by Jean Sasson, one of a genre of “first-person female narrative potboilers” about nasty Arab men and powerless Arab female victims, in this case ostensibly based on the diaries of an anonymous Saudi princess. The extract was about the execution of a Saudi 14-year-old girl after she had become pregnant as a result of a gang rape by some of her brothers’ friends; the usual punishment (flogging) had been ‘upgraded’ to the death penalty at the request of her father, who was “never comfortable with daughters”. Amnesty printed this highly dubious story without displaying any doubts as to its authenticity, but went one step further by omitting to mention that this story appeared in Sasson’s book before the assassination of King Faisal, which took place in 1974. It also made no secret of its prejudice against Islam, titling the extract “Surrender to the Will of God”, the translation of “Islam” given by Sasson, when what is described, if it happened at all, is completely against Islam (like the “Woman’s Room” story in the same book).

In 2007 Amnesty changed its policy on abortion from neutrality to supporting it in cases of rape or incest or where the mother’s life is in danger, which they justified with reference to large-scale rape in places like Darfur (a red herring since abortion would never be legalised in such places, nor supported by the population; it was aimed at places like Ireland, the USA and Latin America). This led to some organisations which had supported their work in freeing political prisoners withdrawing it, notably the Catholic church, which may not be able to compel adult supporters to abandon it but can, for example, shut down Amnesty groups in its schools, which were vital in raising support for its main work of freeing political prisoners. At the time, I referred to this as “mission creep”, a term originally coined to refer to military adventures straying well beyond their original purpose, but which often seems to affect campaigning organisations, resulting in the loss of some who supported their original aims. Of course, many of the feminists who condemn them for this latest advance into areas which have nothing to do with freeing prisoners of conscience supported them then.

However, that policy no doubt reflected the views of most of their western supporters. They are quite out of their depth here, and I suspect many who have heard about this on the news or social media will be scratching their heads and thinking “why do Amnesty need to have a policy on this at all?”. Their press release mentions a number of other global organisations which they say have taken a similar line, but as with Amnesty International, these groups may not have developed these policies independently (despite claims of “years of research”) but rather given in to lobbying; and if numerous other groups are campaigning on this issue already, why does Amnesty need to follow the crowd? It reflects a move away from defending basic, political human rights into criticising areas of policy and advancing western liberal ideas while disguising them as universal human rights. The ‘right’ to buy and sell sex is not a universal human right, and the doctrine of ‘consenting adults’ (i.e. that there should be no legal restrictions on what they can and cannot do with their bodies) is a modern liberal value, not a universal human right. Adopting these ideas as policy means Amnesty looks less like a broad movement for universal human rights and can make less headway with governments who do not share them, which the majority across the world do not.

Some of Amnesty’s divergences from campaigning to free political prisoners are wholly consistent with that aim — ending torture, ending the death penalty (although it has most relevance in a western, particularly American, context), controlling the arms trade, corporate accountability for things like forced labour and displacement of populations, for example. If they wanted to extend their reach in ending imprisonment and torture for innocent people, they might embrace the right of mentally ill people not to live in chains and for disabled people not to live their whole lives shut away in institutions, denied basic rights or exploited. These rights are not secure even in western countries, let alone anywhere else. Yet although Amnesty has a few briefings about it on their website (and do emphasise disability in death penalty cases), they do not have a campaign on the issue, despite it being far more consistent with their original aims than supporting the right to abortion or the decriminalisation of prostitution.

I am not saying Amnesty should have listened uncritically to the lobbying from the “Nordic model” campaigners. While I agree with them that prostitution should be ended and the Nordic model seeks to achieve this rather than letting the trade go on in the open, they place all responsibility on the users (mostly men), assuming them to be abusers or even rapists, while assuming that all “sex workers” are victims, which many are but not all. Others enter the trade becuase, despite the inherent degradation and risks, it is more lucrative than working as a cleaner or shop assistant. This model should certainly apply to cases where someone is in prostitution not of their own free will and the user knows it, but the law should not assume that a transaction (or relationship) that could be exploitative necessarily is. But the majority of human societies recognise that prostitution is a bad thing in itself and do not want it carried out in the open, not only because of the risk to sex workers’ health and safety but because they do not want to live next to it or for their children to have to, and because they do not want it influencing their sons’ behaviour or expectations or impacting on their daughters’ relationships. The slogan “sex workers’ rights are human rights” is chosen because it is difficult to disagree with, but their neighbours’ rights, and other women’s and children’s rights, are human rights too. This is why Amnesty should not be getting involved.

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