Human Rights : part of the problem ?
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 !)