Debate around Amnesty International’s proposal to decriminalize prostitution

NEWS-. On 11 August 2015, Amnesty International issued a significant vote at the International Council Meeting (ICM), in Dublin, which decriminalizes prostitution and aims to better protect sex workers' rights. However, this decision is not approved by all human rights advocates.




Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, explained that “[s]ex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances faces constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.”

The adoption of this resolution prescribes that Amnesty should contribute to “develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work” that exhorts “states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.”

A complex but inclusive policy

Salil Shetty precised that this issue is very complex and therefore Amnesty International decided to address it “from the perspective of international human rights standards.” They attempted to report all the threats faced by sex workers: “arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions.” Sex workers also risk to be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.

In order to have a global and more inclusive understanding of the problem, Amnesty conducted a research and set up a consultation process with other human rights partners over the last two years. Amnesty has grounded its work with reports from UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.
The consultation process was carried out with sex worker groups, groups representing survivors of prostitution, abolitionist organizations, feminist and other women's rights representatives, LGBTI activists, anti- trafficking agencies and HIV/AIDS organizations.

But still not a unanimous issue

Feminist organizations have immediately reacted by claiming that "legalizing prostitution and decriminalizing procurement strengthen human trafficking and sexual slavery." This stance was taken by organizations like Femen, Dare feminism and Amicale du Nid.

Moreover, many human rights activists and some Hollywood actresses – including Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway ... - complained in an open letter to Amnesty International about their request to decriminalize procurement, brothel owners and clients. Even other national branches of Amnesty international have hesitated to endorse this policy. Catherine Godard from Amnesty International France admits that there is an internal debate but she shares the same observations that sex workers are forced to clandestinity because of the illegal character of prostitution. As a result, those persons encounter discriminations regarding access to health, housing, social security and are more vulnerable to violence abuses.

Conflicting human rights norms

This controversial issue around “criminalizing prostitution” reveals the existence of different interpretations of women’s rights or sex workers’ rights or at least contradicting norms in human rights standards. This moral debate was brought in an article by “Philosophie magazine” last June which perceived two major conflicting norms: human dignity versus a person’s ownership of its body. The first doctrine embodied by the female philosopher Sylviane Agacinski considers that prostitution is rarely a free choice and that it is a legacy of “archaic slavery” and patriarchal traditions which institutes unbalanced relationships between clients and sex workers or men and women. On the other hand, thinkers like the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter claim that criminalizing prostitution leads to clandestinity and violations of sex workers ‘rights. She also argues all sex workers are not constrained or manipulated but they exert their free consent in choosing this work.

To conclude, the debate on whether to legalize or not prostitution will not end today. But one priority remains, on which all human right and feminist activists agree, which is to protect the rights of sex workers and prevent the discrimination or violence they are suffering from.


Amnesty International. Global movement votes to adopt policy to protect human rights of sex workers. Published on August 11th 2015.

J, Pascual. Amnesty International propose de décriminaliser la prostitution. Le Monde. Published on August 11th 2015.

Philosophie magazine. Le débat sur la prostitution: entre dignité et propriété de soi. Published on June 12th 2015.