An open letter to Salil Shetty Secretary General, Amnesty International by Harriet Wistrich

July 25th, 2015

Dear Mr. Shetty, Mr. Hawkins and the Amnesty International Board of Directors:

I am writing as a long serving member of Amnesty and a prominent human rights lawyer based in the UK, to object in the strongest possible terms to the proposed ‘draft policy on sex work’ which I understand is under consideration for adoption at your next International Council Meeting in Dublin this August. The policy seeks to promote the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry which I believe would lead to a significant increase in human rights violations worldwide particularly, but not exclusively, impacting on women and girls. I therefore see such a move as a disaster for the reputation of Amnesty and for the struggle for the guarantee of universal human rights world wide. This is an open letter which I hope others will endorse or write in similar terms urging you not to adopt this policy.

I was last year awarded Liberty Human Rights Lawyer 2014 in recognition of my legal work in the UK challenging the police and other state agencies around issues of rape, trafficking, immigration detention, deaths at the hands of the state and discrimination towards women within the criminal justice system. My work has often focussed on challenging the criminalisation of socially excluded individuals and groups, including victims of racism, violence and sexual abuse. Some of the cases I have acted for include, Emma Humphreys (a young prostituted woman convicted of killing her violent pimp/partner); the family of Jean Charles de Menezes (shot by the UK police ten years ago); some of the British men detained and tortured at Guantanamo bay; two of the victims of the serial rapist taxi driver John Worboys in a successful challenge against the police (which established a duty to investigate); women detained and sexually abused by guards at Yards Wood immigration detention centre; and a group of women that were deceived in relationships with undercover police officers.

My partner, Julie Bindel is a long standing feminist abolitionist and a board member of Space International, a survivor led human rights organisation calling for the end to the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls in the sex trade. Space has been endorsed by former President Jimmy Carter, and a number of other prominent figures on the international political stage. In the course of her three decades of research, journalistic investigations, and campaigning in this area she has visited a number of countries and states that have legalised the sex trade. It is because she was convinced of the harm of such a regime in dealing with the abuse of women and children that she decided to expose, in the national press Amnesty’s plans to bring in decriminalisation through the back door last year.

I have had the opportunity to learn, primarily from survivors, of the great harm caused to prostituted women from the sex industry. Most of those who have sold sex have suffered serious physical and mental health damage as a consequence of ‘working’ in this industry and face the risk of being raped or murdered as an occupational hazard. Many who have managed to exit the industry are beginning to speak out in support of a growing abolitionist movement and against the so called ‘sex worker rights’ movement which they tell me is largely led by pimps, brothel owners and those not representative of the majority who are abused in prostitution, such as BDSM practitioners and gay male escorts.

I understand that many who advocate decriminalisation believe that any criminalisation of the industry stigmatises those who sell sex, and that the selling of sex should be regarded as a job like any other. It is thus argued that through decriminalisation there will be an opportunity to regulate the industry and thus promote harm reduction. However, there is a growing body of research that shows that in regimes in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Nevada and the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legalised/decriminalised, there is an increase in demand which in turn has led to an increase in the trafficking of individuals from poor countries and of individuals coerced into prostitution. Such regimes thus lead to an increase in the legal as well as the illegal sex trade.

I recently had the opportunity to be shown around Down Town East Side a tolerance zone in Vancouver, by Summer Rain, a Native Canadian survivor of prostitution who lived there for many years from the time she was prostituted as a child. Whilst it is an area designed to offer harm minimisation services, such as free condoms and injection sights, it is in fact very clearly a dumping ground for the most damaged and socially excluded women and no coincidence that it is also the area from which many of the 1000 plus murdered and missing Native women have disappeared and/or been found murdered.

I would wholeheartedly support the decriminalisation of prostituted individuals and would further advocate for the erasure of criminal convictions arising from prostitution, not least because such convictions are a key barrier to exiting. However, I would strongly oppose the decriminalisation of third party profiteers such as pimps, escort agencies, brothel owners, and other exploiters. I would also support the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. I do not believe prostitution is inevitable, or that anybody has the right to buy sex.

I believe the only human rights approach to prostitution must be one that seeks its abolition. The proposed Amnesty resolution to decriminalise all ‘sex work’ is defeatist and will encourage the increased exploitation and abuse of the most vulnerable, disenfranchised women and girls in society.

Yours sincerely,

Harriet Wistrich

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