Human Rights : part of the problem ?

17/09/2010 at 02:09 4 comments

by Cheryl Overs

The Prague City Council will consider a bill to legalize prostitution today. As in most other countries prostitution in Czech Republic exists in a legal gray area. Changes proposed by Deputy Mayor Rudolf Blažek will seek, among other things, to legalize sex work in brothels and  private homes. Mr Blažek sensibly commented to the The Prague Post.”It’s a possibility to step out of the black market and to include [sex workers] in the standard business regime,” Blažek told “Regulating prostitution and embedding it in the legal system would give more effective tools so the scene would not be as uncontrolled as it is now.”

However Mr Blažek has a problem,  and not for the first time. His government has considered similar steps in the past.  In fact, Blažek himself proposed comparable changes as early as 2001.  In 2003, City Hall and the Interior Ministry again sought such changes, the deal-breaker was that for the reform to go through the Czech Republic must withdraw  from the 1950 UN Convention for the Suppression in the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Such a move requires parliamentary approval, which was not forthcoming. The City Council will again formally request that Parliament take such a step now.

This is a fine state of affairs isn’t it? An enlightened local government in a Member State that wants to stop abuse of sex workers and reduce the public health risks posed by illegal commercial sex is prevented from doing so by a human rights convention.

This is not just an aberration of one of the conventions.  The notion that prostitution is an affront to human dignity is enshrined rights across international human rights law.  The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women */Article 6/*  says States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women. The Convention of the Rights of the Child places similar barriers on effective law and policy to deal with adolescents who are selling sex by dictating they be treated as children until they reach 18 years of age.

In the face of this, arguing for human rights as athe tool for ending the oppression of sex workers  is a lost cause.  Arguing for example that  laws against soliciting violate sex workers right to ‘freedom of movement ‘ are risible.

We can’t seem to rely on human rights or women’s organisations to either understand or challenge the threat to sex workers posed by human rights law.  Quite the opposite. Human Rights Watch just conducted what they call research (questioning a few sex workers) in Cambodia.  Their ‘results’  repeated what the APNSW and WNU had already published with the crucial difference that HRW did not  recommend repeal of the anti-sexual exploitation law that is driving the abuse. If  only those pesky violent Cambodian police would stop bashing and raping people the law would be fine with HRW. CHANGE and other women’s rights organisations supported the closing of Craigslist ads for commercial sex to protect victims of trafficking.

So while it’s very nice for sex workers to march about chanting  ‘sex workers rights are human rights’ the reality is that at best human rights offers sex workers very little, and at worst they form a potent barrier to sex workers realising their labour and civil rights.  This was what I had in mind when I surprised my colleagues in the sex workers rights movement by saying I would definitely not attend the Human Rights March in Vienna to listen to the Annie Lennox talking about human rights.  I won’t be blowing the vuvuzela of human rights or until I hear  some recognition from powerful human rights and womens organisations  that the current formulation makes human rights a  part of the problem not the solution.  To do that they will need to listen to sex workers and support our demands – demands that a mayor in the Czech Republic seems to understand better than human rights. ( but maybe not – he wants mandatory testing but that’s another story !)


Entry filed under: health, HIV and AIDS, human rights and law. Tags: , .

Willing Brides and Consenting Homosexuals ? : why we must unite against the trafficking paradigm.

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. CHANGE  |  20/09/2010 at 22:18

    Thank you, Cheryl; this is a thoughtful piece on a complicated, nuanced issue. One important correction is that CHANGE did not join with other organizations in efforts to close craigslist ads for commercial sex, and we did not consider the closing of the ads to be a move that would protect victims of trafficking. In a letter to craigslist, CHANGE made the following recommendations for how they can be more helpful in addressing issues of trafficking of women and minors for the purpose of sex: Establish an advisory council of experts in sex work, trafficking and human rights to help craigslist to identify and establish actions they can do to minimize abuse; be transparent in steps they are taking to address these issues; not conflate trafficking and prostitution; fund organizations that support the rights of sex workers; and be transparent about who they are funding and why.

  • 2. Matt  |  23/09/2010 at 09:38

    I think there are two main ways that “human rights” can be called on in this debate. The first is to refer to and to base claims on established human rights legislation – unfortunately a lot of human rights claims are entirely made up, not based on anything that exists in the human rights conventions. Common examples are the “right to self determination” (which is a peoples’ right but not a person’s right, and refers essentially to statehood and democracy); the right to choose one’s doctor (nice – but not a right); and the right to have a boyfriend or girlfriend (I think you told me you’d heard this one!). If formal human rights are being claimed, they have to be done so based on existing conventions and established interpretations. And this can’t be pushed too far, like you say the claim that laws against solicitation are a violation of the right to freedom of movement is not robust.

    But as you say, some human rights law is fairly unambiguously against the rights of sex workers. My position is to say: they got it wrong. The second way of calling on human rights is to challenge what conventions say; demonstrate their inconsistencies; and make claims for changes. It is a much more long term approach… in fact it may be pointless to expect that any such change will happen. But I think it is an important part of the debate because otherwise you invariably get reactions such as the one you described above from HRW (and which many governments use also)… that are categorically against accepting sex work as work.

  • 3. Maxine Doogan  |  06/10/2010 at 16:48

    ….at best human rights offers sex workers very little, and at worst they form a potent barrier to sex workers realising their labour and civil rights…

    Thanks for articulating this major flaw in strategy that the sex worker rights movement has employed. Long has it been that I’ve asked the hard questions about what exact rights are those on ourside talking about because we know the faux arguments opposing our right to work by faux human rights groups. I’ve had the same concern for ‘harm reduction’.

    Its not like any of the ‘rights based movements’ want us anyway. Its always been about us risking our lives, livelihoods, families and communities to stand up and carve out our place in labor and civil rights terms because at least these rights are more accurate to what we really want.

    Too it’s clear that these faux human rights groups have been funded by government while the more direct actions are not. In this way non profits that focus on HIV prevention and human rights been the front line barriers in our own activist communities.
    So yes, I expect that prostitutes rights activist will finally have to face this reality as a result of this ruling and that’s a good thing.

  • 4. cherylovers  |  06/11/2010 at 18:26

    This summer, CHANGE received and then returned an unsolicited contribution of $25,000 from the craigslist Charitable Fund. The check arrived a few months after news accounts of craigslist sex ads being misused for the sexual exploitation and trafficking of minors. While we do not believe that craigslist supports or is responsible for such practices, we found their response to the situation inadequate: the lack of outrage or concern for the women exploited through use of their site, finger-pointing at other sites used for similar purposes, and lack of transparency about the Fund’s mission and grant-giving was troubling and showed a lack of corporate responsibility. CHANGE returned the check with recommendations for craigslist

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