Amnesty’s Response

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On 24 August 2015, I published What Amnesty Did Wrong, in which I laid out many errors that Amnesty made in developing its proposal for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of “consensual sex work”. This proposal had been passed as a resolution at a meeting of the International Council in Dublin two weeks earlier (referred to as “the resolution” in this article).

In September, members of an internal Amnesty USA discussion forum requested that Amnesty USA respond to all of the points that I raised in that article. Below is a response from Terry Rockefeller to the forum on “behalf of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee”, followed by a few observations of my own.

From: Terry Rockefeller
Sent: Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Subject: Re: {aiusa-d} Please respond: absolutely essential article re Amnesty sex work policy

Thank you, Elise and other members who share some or all of your concerns,

I agree with Janet that it is pointless to engage with an article that is filled with errors and rumors. However, I do want to respond on behalf of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee to some of the issues that have been raised in the article and elsewhere.

1. Amnesty’s policy on state obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of sex workers must be analyzed in its entirety

Amnesty is calling for the decriminalization of the buying and selling of sex between consenting adults (those 18 years and older).

The ICM resolution makes clear that Amnesty opposes all trafficking of humans whether into the sex trade or for any other purpose. Amnesty opposes all violence, all extortion, and all coercion of sex workers. The intent of the policy is to be very clear about the specific crimes and abuses that sex workers experience and must be protected against, rather than using terms such as “pimps, punters, johns, and brothels” that are subject to widely different legal interpretations in different societies.

The policy maintains that a distinction between consensual sex work and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation can, in fact, be made. Those who have their passports taken away, their families threatened, or are subjected to physical coercion or violence to induce them to sell sex have been exploited. Those who negotiate a sex work transaction on their own terms are consensual sex workers. Sex workers point out that buyers of sex are not all bad people and that buyers need to be part of the solution to the crimes (trafficking, coercion of minors, violence, etc.) that do exist, and that they are prevented from doing so due to criminalization.

Amnesty bases our opposition to trafficking and the exploitation of children on many human rights treaties and policies. The policy adopted at the ICM makes clear that states must criminalize any act related to the sexual exploitation of a child (anyone under the age of 18), all trafficking, any other forms of exploitation or coercion, and any violence against sex workers.

It is incorrect to characterize this as a question of whether Amnesty should support abolition of sex work “or” support perpetuation of sex work. Instead, this policy is about how state policies cause human rights harm to sex workers. Amnesty did not need to decide, and did not decide, whether sex work is desirable. It did decide that human rights violations could occur as a result of state policies that criminalize sex workers’ lives.

Amnesty is not taking a position on the legalization of sex work. That is a different decision that would address the question of how states would be involved in regulating conditions under which sex work takes place.

2. How we understand agency and choice

The broader consideration here is that, while we know that many sex workers face a limited range of choices and are more likely to suffer abuse, any suggestion that the state knows better than sex workers themselves undermines the agency of people who do decide to enter sex work as the best among available options. Certainly, we all want, and Amnesty’s policy explicitly calls for, people to have a range of employment options so that sex work is not their only available option. Amnesty’s policy also calls for states to provide redress for victims of crime and abuse, and more broadly for states to respect, protect and fulfill economic rights.

While it is true that many sex workers are migrants, poor, or otherwise marginalized, to suggest that those factors “force” people into sex work, and therefore that the state should step in and tell them how they should or should not be living their lives, not only stigmatizes them further, but also opens them up to more human rights abuse (police violence and harassment, less safe working conditions, diminished ability to negotiate condom use, etc.).

3. The research upon which Amnesty relied

The availability and reliability of relevant research has been a matter of discussion and disagreement throughout AIUSA’s and the global movement’s consultation on the policy. These questions were fully considered as part of the decision-making process at the ICM. The sources cited in the draft policy indicate the evidence upon which the policy is based. The IS will also be sharing its own research on Papua New Guinea, Norway, Argentina and Hong Kong with members in all sections.

4. Opposition to the policy from outside Amnesty

It is true that Amnesty has faced opposition to the policy externally, but we have also garnered substantial support. Going into the ICM, the IS released a survey of critics and supporters of Amnesty’s policy, which was roughly split, with slightly more supporters. However, it should be noted that many who wrote against the policy completely mischaracterized the proposal. While consensus would certainly not be possible on such a controversial policy, the decision that was made was fully informed by the environment in which Amnesty was operating.

As to the question of urgency, there are practical and philosophical reasons why Amnesty entered this debate. Researchers were finding in the course of existing work widespread abuses against sex workers. Their findings and analysis indicated that decriminalization should be part of our recommended solutions, which human rights organizations and other experts in the field also indicate would be beneficial, but which Amnesty could not call for without further policy development, including as pertains to decriminalization. This is our understanding of why a policy was first considered. The philosophical reason for immediacy is that, if criminalization of sex work does foster abuses of sex workers’ human rights, Amnesty, as a leader in the global human rights community, has an obligation to say so even in the face of opposition and criticism.

5. AIUSA’s consultation

Concerns have been raised that the Priorities Subcommittee consulted only selected outside organizations and that certain views were not considered. The Subcommittee members did not know the positions of most of the organizations consulted before communicating with representatives from those organizations. All of the views shared with us from these conversations were considered carefully. The characterization of the sex workers many of us met with at the AGM in Chicago as essentially elite entrepreneurial sex workers, who could afford to be empowered, is troubling. Even those of us who sat down and discussed the policy with them do not know enough about their lives to make such characterizations. Among those who members of the Board and the Priorities Subcommittee met with that weekend were representatives of an anti-trafficking coalition, former sex workers who oppose full decriminalization, and a trafficking survivor who supports full decriminalization. We also know that the other cis and trans women we met with told us they face rights abuses because the state has criminalized their lives, and the lives of the sex workers and homeless youths that several of them work with daily.

6. AIUSA members’ obligations

While the language of the policy is not final, what is a “done deal” is that Amnesty will have a policy on the human rights of sex workers, and that the ICM has tasked the International Board with ensuring that policy will include a call for states to decriminalize consensual sex work. The suggestion that any of us in AIUSA would prevent people from discussing the policy, or that we have imposed a “gag order,” is troubling. Certainly we are all welcome to continue discussing the policy and the consultation process. Being a member of this organization comes with the right to participate in these debates and in our internal democracy. But membership also has obligations. Of course, members can say whatever they want about public policy as individuals. What is being asked is that in doing so, you don’t condemn Amnesty, or advocate a different position when representing Amnesty.


Terry Kay Rockefeller

Board member, Chair of the Planning and Priorities Committee, and member of the Priorities Subcommittee


Whose errors? What rumours?

Dear Terry Rockefeller,

It would be helpful to understand exactly what errors and rumours Amnesty thinks What Amnesty Did Wrong is filled with and whose responsibility they consider those supposed errors and rumours to be.

For example, does Amnesty consider the 1949 UN Convention on the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others to be an error or its existence a rumour? Or is it that they think that the UN was in error when it agreed this convention that defined prostitution as incompatible with human rights? If they do agree that the UN did in fact pass this convention in 1949, why did Amnesty not mention it?

Under the heading “3. The resolution is contradictory”, I point out that the resolution allows states to impose restrictions on the sale of sexual services, which directly contradicts the press release that states that the policy supports the full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work. This means that the resolution actually calls for the full decriminalisation of buying sexual services but only the partial decriminalisation of selling them. This is a serious point that needs explanation and dismissing it as an error or a rumour is inadequate.

Under the heading “7. Listening to ‘sex workers’ – but only if they agree”, I included a powerful statement from a young prostituted woman in New Zealand, in which she explains that most people in prostitution are ignorant about government policies and have never heard of the Nordic Model so asking their opinions without first presenting them with full and unbiased information about the various possible approaches does not necessarily prove anything. Is Amnesty suggesting that this young woman is in error and doesn’t know what she’s talking about? Or does Amnesty think her very existence is a rumour?

I could ask equivalent questions about every other point in my article but I think you get the gist. The article raises very serious issues and to dismiss it as “filled with errors and rumors” is inadequate. Amnesty’s proposed policy has the potential to affect the lives of millions of the most disadvantaged human beings enduring the most distressing circumstances on the planet. To dismiss valid criticism as full of “errors and rumors” is simply not acceptable.

In order to simplify the exercise for Amnesty, I have published another article, 120 Questions for Amnesty, in which I reframe my points as simple questions and include additional points raised by Terry Rockefeller’s response above.

4 thoughts on “Amnesty’s Response

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