NOT for the first time has Amnesty International stirred up a hornet’s nest for all the wrong reasons. On this occasion the human rights outfit has infuriated some very powerful ladies: the Hollywood ‘wimmin’.
Trendsetters such as Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, Anne Hathaway, Angela Basset, Lena Dunham, Emily Blunt, plus more than four hundred supporters, have told the so-called prisoner of conscience organisation to cop itself on.
Founded in the 1960s by Catholic lawyer Peter Benenson and former IRA Chief of Staff Seán McBride, Amnesty International announced that it intends to campaign for the decriminalisation of the sex trade – a matter to be discussed next month in Dublin as part of an Amnesty review of what it euphemistically describes as ‘sex work’.
Amnesty says its proposed decriminalisation policy is based on the human rights principle that commercial sexual conduct between adults, which excludes acts that involve coercion, deception, threats, or violence, is entitled to protection from state interference. Prostitution, in other words, should be legalised in order to protect human rights.
It argues that the current situation endangers ‘sex workers,’ such as in cases where prostitutes can be jailed for plying their trade. Nonetheless, Amnesty emphasises that ‘trafficking into forced prostitution should remain criminalised as a matter of international law,’ as should the sexual exploitation of children.
At the heart of the Amnesty argument is the idea that governments should not condemn the decisions and choices of women who want to work as prostitutes, nor should the context in which they live their lives be criminalised. According to Cammie Croft, Deputy Executive Director of Digital Communications, Amnesty International, and formerly of Obama’s New Media Department at the White House, ‘sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world so it is important that we understand how, as Amnesty International, we can work to support their human rights.’ Wow!
She points out that the violations suffered by sex workers can include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion, harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. Sex workers also can be excluded from health care and housing services, and other social and legal protection. All that must change.
Amnesty is claiming that prostitutes should have the same rights as other workers and that ‘sexual commerce’ should be treated like any other kind of gainful employment.
The Hollywood celebs agree that prostitutes should not be criminalised or brutalised by police and government, but they draw the line at the full decriminalisation of gangsters and pimps who exploit the poverty, homelessness and abuse of women. The proposed legalisation, they say, will keep ‘brothel keepers and sex-slavers in freedom and riches’.
Campaigner Gloria Steinem, leader of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, warned that, under the proposed legislation, ‘pimping would in effect support a kind of gender apartheid’ – in the sense that some women will be able to demand and get protection from rape, discrimination and sexual harassment, while the most vulnerable will remain at the mercy of business types who in the old days were described contemptuously as whoremongers.
Feminists see the Amnesty proposal as nothing more than ‘a grubby collusion with misogyny and a betrayal of women’s rights’. They point out that the plan goes against Amnesty’s own noble objective to help people who suffer abuse and exploitation.
‘Far from representing any form of advancement for women, the decriminalisation of prostitution will lead to more abuse, more violence, and more subjugation.’ said prominent political activist, writer and co-founder of the group ‘Justice for Women,’ Julie Bindel.
‘The call for the decriminalisation of prostitution, or what Amnesty describes with offensive understatement as the “sex work” industry, is dressed up in soothing, politically-correct rhetoric about women’s rights. But the reality is that the legalisation would represent official state approval of those who keep this vile trade going,’ she warned.
To add to the polemic, the commodities-style language in the Amnesty proposal has offended many feminists. ‘In what other job do the occupational hazards include beatings, theft of earnings, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, forcible removal of children, constant threats and even death?’ Ms Bindel asked.
According to the feminists, prostitution is not freely-chosen gainful work and, for Amnesty International to present it in such a light, is to ignore the fact that those in prostitution are there because of a lack of choice or because they are educationally-disadvantaged, vulnerable, marginalised, or have been sexually abused.
The upshot of the acrimonious controversy is that Amnesty International’s contention that prostitution is a lifestyle choice has been interpreted as ‘bizarre’. Only traffickers and organised criminal networks will benefit from decriminalisation, say the objectors.
Women’s groups also want the voice of survivors of prostitution to be heard – namely people in the sex trade who can speak of their experiences of violence, exploitation, trafficking, drug addiction and financial pressures.
Certainly the feminists will have their work cut out! The fact of the matter is that Amnesty is one of the world’s most efficient lobbying machines. Having drifted from the defence of the rights of prisoners of conscience in foreign countries – its original core purpose – it has built up considerable experience in media manipulation by centring on political, social and cultural issues in the jurisdictions in which it operates.
What’s more, because of Amnesty’s reputation as a global campaigner that easily wins the ear of legislators, it has been accused of avoiding the hard issues and of being selective in the human rights that it chooses to protect.
In this country, Amnesty was blatantly one-sided in its support for same sex marriage. Before that, along with other groups, it successfully lobbied the government to accept abortion as a human right.
It criticised the HSE for failing to make mental health spending a priority and it mounted a campaign to demand better accountability in how the government allocated resources – both parish-pump topics. It energetically pursued a campaign relating to child abuse within the Catholic Church.
Critics also have pointed out that that with the broadening of Amnesty’s brief, which now focuses on economic, social and cultural rights rather than on the release of prisoners of conscience, the moral power that the organisation once had to change political behaviour and political thinking has been damaged.
Which raises this point: If Amnesty has moved from Peter Benenson’s vision to the point where, as some critics argue, there is a danger of the organisation losing its capacity to convince others on how the world ought to be, does Amnesty’s new incarnation exist simply for its own good, or for the work it does? The debate relating to the decriminalisation of prostitution and the fiery response by women worldwide may well determine the answer!