When scholars and activists fight for the rights of sex workers, people occassionally take notice. But when a humanitarian giant gets on board the sex worker rights movement, its time for the world to stop and listen. Amnesty International, one of the most prestigious human rights organizations in the world recently made headlines when a document entitled “Decriminalisation of Sex Work: Policy Background Document” was leaked. The document outlines the organization’s emerging stance on defending the rights of sex workers through decriminalization.

The document calls for an end to criminalization of prostitution, which Amnesty defines as “measures that seek to punish sex workers and clients through the threat of sanctions such as detention, fines, or exclusion from benefits or care (p .2). Noting that due to vastly increasing income inequality throughout the world, many people make “transactional agreements” around sexual relationships that are often their only options, Amnesty calls for an end to policies that penalize individuals for making these transactions. The organization acknowledges that such policies are most often based on moralisms that have little relevance to the marginalized. Often, they explain, these laws only end up harming those who are already living at a disadvantage due to structural inequalities. The document states:

“Amnesty International does not take a position on the morality of sex work. Our focus is on how to ensure that all human beings, including those who engage in sex work, are most empowered to claim their rights and live free from fear, violence and discrimination. Amnesty International believes individuals are entitled to make decisions about their lives and livelihoods, and that governments have an obligation to create an enabling environment where these decisions are free, informed, and based on equality of opportunity” (p. 3).

Furthermore, Amnesty International explains, policies equating sex work and sex trafficking not only undermines sex workers’ autonomy, but distracts from the other forms of trafficking which occur throughout the world—namely forced labor in the domestic, construction, agricultural and other labor sectors. Additionally, Amnesty observes, international human rights law guarantees that all people have the right to safe working conditions, as well as the right to privacy. Governments, they say, should focus on protecting these rights by offering citizens safe housing and poverty alleviation programs, rather than punishing sex work occurring in public spaces. Failing to do this is a violation of people’s human rights,, and governments who penalize sex workers should be made to “articulate a compelling state interest in interfering in individual sexual interactions” (8).

Criminalization of sex work, Amnesty concludes, also violates the universal human rights of security and health, as it is sex workers who are criminalized who face riskier working conditions and thus are in greater danger of both disease and unlawful detention.

But critics of the leaked policy document abound. Most fall into the pro-abolitionist feminist camp, which sees all sex work as nonconsensual and a violation of human rights in itself. According to the UK’s Daily Mail, one critic of the policy paper stated, “We do not solve the problems for women in the developing world by encouraging them to be prostitutes. Who benefits from that? The men. Prostitution is a form of exploitation and abuse – not a choice.”

A petition on change.org also took this critical stance, claiming that by supporting the decriminalization of sex work, Amnesty International is “not listening” to survivors of sexual abuse and assault. This perspective mirrors the abolitionist trope that all sex work is akin to rape.

But another petition on Change.org has been set up in support of Amnesty’s draft policy—a move that shows the extent to which the draft has provoked debate and incentivized activists on both sides of the issue to become even more vocal.

Read Amnesty International’s Policy on Decriminalizing Sex Work here: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/global-policy-consultation-sex-work

Read the Daily Mail story here: http://dailym.ai/1aQEiHa