Amnesty International calls for freedom of speech … after expelling a veteran member for opposing its pro-prostitution policy

Pope Francis sits with members of the Pope John XXIII Community in Rome on 12 August 2016. The pontiff paid a surprise visit to the community that is helping 20 young women get their lives back together after being rescued from prostitution. Photo: CNS

This week, in a Trump-targeted campaign, Amnesty International in Australia and world-wide, called on its supporters to “add your voice” to the protection of freedom of speech and other human rights.  It encouraged its audience to: “Join our call on the President-elect to renounce all the hateful rhetoric and uphold human rights for all.”

While many would share some of Amnesty’s concerns, and would like to ask Donald Trump and indeed the last President about the current situation in the Guantánamo Bay Detention centre, the status of refugees, and the place of institutionalised torture within the United States, there are others who would also like to pose some burning questions to Amnesty itself about some of its policies and processes.

For some years, world-wide networks of activists and “survivors” have pressed Amnesty about the controversial history and political interests which lie behind its recent policy calling for the complete “decriminalisation” and de-regulation of prostitution throughout the world, and there are serious questions about the assumptions which lie behind this move.

It has been pointed out that this new policy swerves dramatically away from the United Nations’ Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, the preamble of which states: “Whereas prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person …”

In July 2015, a joint letter signed by 400 individuals and organisations, from “a wide breadth of national and international human rights advocates, women’s rights organisations, faith-based and secular organisations and concerned individuals” pleaded with Amnesty to reject the “full decriminalisation” model it promoted.

While this letter encouraged the removal of criminal sanctions for prostituted individuals themselves it rejected as “incomprehensive” the “wholesale decriminalisation of the sex industry, which in effect legalises pimping, brothel owning and sex buying.”

Amnesty has continued to defend its policy arguing that it: “believes that seeking, buying, selling and soliciting paid sex are acts protected from state interference as long as there is no coercion, threats or violence associated with those acts.”

However as Irish activist, author, member of SPACE and prostitution survivor, Rachel Moran argues, coercion takes many forms, social, economic, psychological and educational, and pressures to join and remain in the trade of flesh is the norm not a fringe risk: “Amnesty International proposes a sex trade free from ‘force, fraud or coercion,’ but I know from what I’ve lived and witnessed that prostitution cannot be disentangled from coercion.”

The activist international network The Coalition Against the Trafficking in Women (CATW) argues that the move to decriminalise the purveyors of others in prostitution not only fails to protect those sold in this way, but also feeds the interests of one of the fastest growing criminal sectors around the world, following closely behind arms and drug trafficking.

Those who argue for the decriminalisation of prostitution, do not advert to the link between removing sanctions for pimps and buyers of sexual exploitation, and the traffic of human sexual “cargo.”

Citing the US Department of Trade studies CATW notes that: Several million individuals are victims of human trafficking each year. Of these, 87 per cent are trafficked for the explicit purpose of sexual exploitation. The majority are girls and women (UNODC)”

Even more disturbing is the news from January this year, that Marcia Lieberman, a veteran Amnesty activist, and the co-ordinator of a chapter of Amnesty International, was expelled from Amnesty because of her outspoken dissent from the Amnesty policy on the “decriminalisation” of prostitution, even though she was evidently supported by the rest of her chapter, no. 49 in Rhode Island.

Marcia Lieberman wrote on behalf of her Chapter in Providence Journal in Rhode Island Opinion piece on 14 December 2016 critical of the processes by which Amnesty had arrived at its “full decriminalisation” model.  She argued that even the local police were more aware of the reality of prostitution.

“The police now treat prostitutes, often girls or young women from broken families or other social dysfunction, as victims rather than perpetrators of crime. The sex trade is driven by demand from customers”

Later she made an important distinction: “We believe there should be help for people in sex work … But we did not believe it should be legal for customers to buy sex.”