Amnesty International and its support for the human rights of sex workers

I sat alone in my bedroom as I read the news across my social media this past August: Amnesty International members voted on a resolution calling on Amnesty’s International Board to adopt a policy that “seeks the attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalization of sex work.”[1]

At the time, I worked and lived in a northern Alberta community. I was working with youth and working for a program to develop positive, safe opportunities for the youth to be their own selves in non-judgmental spaces. When I had the interview for this program, I was very honest and explicit about my involvement in the sex workers’ rights movement, and about being an Indigenous woman with sex working experience. My experience was on my resume and my experience was hard to ignore, as I spent the majority of 2014 speaking out against the criminalization of sex work.

During the job interview, the interviewers asked what I would do if people from the community asked me about my sex work. I replied that I would tell them that the work that I do now is focused on the safety of sex workers, and that regardless of what someone does for a living, they should still be afforded the same protections, rights and access to safety as anyone else. If you are someone who is selling or trading sex, you should be able to access healthcare services and social services, and you should have access to other rights, including human rights.

In response to Amnesty’s vote to support the human rights of sex workers, I think we should have a discussion about what we mean by the term “human rights” and what it means to support sex workers’ human rights.

In Canada, we think of human rights as those that are expressly set out in our human rights legislation. There is no argument there. Those are our human rights. However, the concept of human rights extends beyond what we can find in existing legislation, especially in Canada. Our own human rights legislation does not do enough in terms of protecting vulnerable and marginalized groups – just ask any Indigenous woman living, working, and still fucking breathing in Canada. There are even some people who strongly believe that criminalizing certain actions, like the selling and trading of sexual services among consenting adults, will protect the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. We have seen this position manifest itself in the passing of Canada’s most recent anti-prostitution legislation, c-36, For The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (c-36).

During the passing of these laws, many people spoke out against the process, arguing that the Parliamentary panels were stacked with people who supported the law. Among the few with sex working experience who spoke out against the bill and who were invited to sit on the Parliamentary panel(s), I was the only Indigenous woman who had sex working experience across Canada, who could attend the panel in person to testify against the bill (now law), and who publicly supported the decriminalization of sex work. The other Indigenous woman who was invited could not attend because she was supporting her friend, another Indigenous woman, who was arrested under the communication laws.[2] At the committee, I stated that if we were going to be thinking about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls along with the issue of trafficking, then criminalizing sex workers (including indirectly criminalizing them through laws that target various aspects of sex work, like communication laws), especially Indigenous sex workers, is not the solution. Along with many other international organizations, the members of Amnesty International agree.[3]

After Amnesty’s vote, I spoke with Sarah Beamish, a Scottish and Māori (Ngāruahine) woman based in Canada who has been deeply involved in the development of the resolution and draft policy, first as President of the English-speaking branch of Amnesty Canada and then as a member of Amnesty’s International Board. We talked about this development process. Amnesty’s policy has been through multiple drafts throughout the two-year consultation period, and it is now being finalized using principled directions from its members.[4] The policy reflects feedback from broad international consultation, it is backed by evidence from Amnesty’s own research, and it is supported by many people with lived experience as sex workers. Amnesty heard from people and organizations with a variety of perspectives on decriminalization, including a number of sex worker’s rights, survivor, and abolitionist groups. The policy has been developed with the work and support of a broad range of human rights activists from around the world, with much of the energy and leadership coming from women and queer people. And the goal of protecting and supporting sex worker’s rights was at the heart of Amnesty’s decision to support decriminalization.

I have learned a great deal while waiting to publish my thoughts on Amnesty members’ decision to support sex workers’ rights. In that time, I have reviewed and reflected on the many pieces that have spoken about the policy vote. I grew frustrated when I read some of the published pieces, which would resort to inflammatory language, accusing Amnesty of protecting “pimps.”[5] These comments reminded me of my experiences while testifying against c-36 and the backlash that followed.[6]

When I raised this with Sarah, she said that “what was central for all Amnesty members involved in this decision was supporting the human rights and safety of sex workers, and in turn supporting the policy option that we believed would best support that goal.” She pointed out that, far from being about “protecting abusive behaviour by ‘pimps’ or ‘johns’” (as many critics of the policy decision have alleged), the decision reflects the members’ concern about the risks of exploitation and violence that sex workers often face, and emphasizes states’ “obligation to ensure that sex workers are protected from exploitation and can use criminal law to address acts of exploitation.”[7] During Amnesty’s consultations, many people with sex working experience pointed out that the criminalization of sex work did not protect them, and in fact tended to expose them to greater risk and leave them with fewer options for preventing and addressing exploitation, discrimination, and violence.

To understand the full spirit and intent of the policy, we should look past the rhetoric of its critics, and to the decision itself. As noted above, the main decision is that the International Board must adopt a policy that “seeks the attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include decriminalization.” Looking further, the decision also includes thirteen points that outline the factors, values, and principles that the final policy must include. In these points we see a commitment to things like harm reduction, gender equality, and women’s rights. The decision also raises principles of agency, participation, and free and prior informed consent (FPIC), stating that the final policy must:

[recognize] and [respect] the agency of sex workers to articulate their own experiences and define the most appropriate solutions to ensure their own welfare and safety, while also complying with broader, relevant international human rights principles regarding participation in decision-making, such as the principle of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent with respect to Indigenous peoples.[8]

Sarah acknowledged that during the policy development process Amnesty members from Canada provided “a lot of leadership” in listening to and raising the concerns of Indigenous women in relation to sex work, including by calling attention to connections between sex workers’ rights and Indigenous people’s rights, and the related principle of FPIC. The inclusion of FPIC in the decision draws attention to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP highlights the need for states to consult with Indigenous peoples in “adopting and implementing legislation or administrative measures that may affect [Indigenous peoples].”[9] Given the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in sex work, and the role that historic and ongoing colonial policies have had in this, there is no question that legislation about sex work affects Indigenous people. But as Sarah noted, “most discussions about sex workers’ rights haven’t grappled with the complex questions about how FPIC may be relevant with respect to Indigenous sex workers and sex work in primarily Indigenous communities.” I agree. And, conversely, the majority of the discourse surrounding FPIC is silent about sex work and instead deals mainly with questions about land and natural resource extraction (and even then, we see a lack of consultation in good faith—the Canadian conservative government didn’t spend $106 million on litigation fighting against Indigenous peoples and their rights for nothing![10]).

So, what does the inclusion of FPIC mean for sex workers’ rights?

As someone who has worked in the trade, including travelling to and working in various regions, I know the harms of criminalization of sex work. I have been denied services, especially in relation to protection and safety, because of the criminalization of sex work. I have been denied access to safe work spaces because of the criminalization of sex work. Also, instead of being able to call the police after experiencing violence and while fearing criminalization, I continued to work in unsafe places in exchange for the illusion of immediate protection these places offered. Undisputedly, the same type of criminalization I feared would also significantly reduce my ability to obtain employment outside of the trade. So, I welcome Amnesty’s support for the protection of the human rights of sex workers through measures that include decriminalization, because in my experience, there cannot be full protection without decriminalization.

Importantly, the policy also acknowledges that violence and discrimination against sex workers happen in many ways and contexts that go well beyond the “sex work” itself, and that criminalization creates space for a number of players to violate sex workers’ human rights. This is especially true for Indigenous women and two-spirit people, who are already vulnerable to discrimination and violence, and who become even further marginalized if they are in sex work. Acknowledging some critics’ specific concerns regarding Indigenous women and violence they experience, including in situations of state violence, displacement, and conflict, Sarah recognizes that “we have to address colonization and colonialism when we talk about violence against Indigenous women.”

The inclusion of FPIC helps to do just that. By incorporating the concept of FPIC into its decision, Amnesty highlights the need for states to consult with Indigenous peoples in good faith. If we reframe the issue of criminalization of sex work as one of sovereignty over body and land, we see that Canada has a long way to go in appreciating and addressing the concerns of Indigenous peoples. Because if the Canadian government continues with its trend of dismissing FPIC and fighting Indigenous peoples who are exercising and affirming their own rights over their land, we will continue to see the exact same trend when it comes to violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks. Again, a perfect example of this refusal to consult with Indigenous peoples in good faith occurred during the enactment of c-36.

Critics also often try to suggest that Amnesty does not want to fight against human trafficking. Sarah disagreed with this, saying, “We strongly condemn human trafficking, and we reject the idea that criminalizing sex work (thereby raising the risks to sex workers’ security) is a necessary, effective, or acceptable way to eliminate human trafficking.” The decision makes this very clear. The decision confirms that “[s]tates have the obligation to prevent and combat trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and to protect the human rights of victims of trafficking.” But when we conflate sex work with human trafficking, we run the risk of creating new victims by creating more space for human rights violations to occur, especially in Canada with respect to Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.

We don’t have to look very far for evidence of such human rights violations in Canada. From 1985-2011, around 300 sex workers were murdered in Canada.[11] With the most recent release of MMIWG reports by the RCMP, they admit that murders of Indigenous women who work in the sex trade continue to be solved at a rate much lower than murders of non-Indigenous sex workers and non-sex working victims.[12] The Pickton Inquiry also stated,

“Three overarching social and economic trends contribute to the women’s marginalization: retrenchment of social assistance programs, the ongoing effects of colonialism, and the criminal regulation of prostitution and related law enforcement strategies [emphasis added].”[13]

And as for the serial killer John Martin Crawford, who roamed the streets preying on Indigenous women, Warren Goulding captured the dominant attitude to Crawford’s crimes in the title of his book: “Just Another Indian: A Serial Killer and Canada’s Indifference.”

So what does it mean to support sex workers’ human rights? What do we mean by human rights?

Human rights extends beyond the pre-existing grounds laid out in current legislation, especially in Canada, which continues to fail the most marginalized and vulnerable of folks, including sex workers. Acknowledging sex workers’ rights in Canada means recognizing the ongoing history of colonialism within Canada. It means consulting with Indigenous peoples in good faith and not just consulting who is most convenient to get laws like c-36 passed – the same kinds of laws ruled unconstitutional only months earlier by Canada’s highest court. Recognizing sex workers’ rights means that we must appreciate that pro-decriminalization policies are only, as Sarah noted, “one point in a much wider web of human rights policies necessary to protect the rights of people in sex work.” Continuing, Sarah said that “human rights are interdependent and indivisible from one another, and upholding the rights of sex workers means more than just addressing those rights violations contributed to or caused by criminalization. It also means addressing the rights violations that may push people into sex work, keep them there, and make it more difficult to leave.”

The decision calls attention to these complex issues. It’s time we started listening…

Thank you/chi-miigwetch to Sarah for providing her knowledge and expertise in relation to AI’s decision. 









[9] See Article 19






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