After Amnesty, what’s next? A call to global action

I was in Europe doing research for Female Sexual Slavery in 1977 when I met with the Executive Director of Amnesty International in London. I had thought, naively, that in following their mandate to address state torture, Amnesty would have had documentation of the traffic in women and children. Instead what I got was: Sexual slavery? Traffic in women? Never happened. That was a fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. And of course this was capped off with the tiresome “sex between consenting adults,” mantra that excuses and enables men who buy women. Even then, as they have done in their latest campaign to promote prostitution through decriminalization of pimps and buyers,  in the words of own Meghan Murphy, “they are just making shit up and stating it as fact!!?!?”

A few years ago, Julie Bindel broke ground by exposing and publishing a secret draft of Amnesty International’s proposal to prostitution. Within a few weeks of Bindel’s exposé, Abolish Prostitution Now launched campaigns on several continents and many countries to sway the national Amnesty general meetings within countries, proposing the Nordic Model instead, which criminalizes pimps and men who buy women and children for sexual use and abuse. Then we heard that Amnesty International would be voting on it.

All of a sudden, as if from everywhere, human rights and women’s rights activists including the painfully powerful voices of survivors began a global mass movement to stop Amnesty’s sex industry supported proposal. In campaigns against Amnesty’s now adopted policy, we have raised national and global consciousness about the sexual exploitation of prostitution. In just weeks, we have sparked a massive movement.

Now this is our time to SEIZE THE MOMENT.

Here is what I propose: We defeat Amnesty by building global actions that will introduce the Nordic model in every state, every municipality that we can reach. We will win human rights for women every time the Nordic model is adopted. We desperately need buyers arrested, fined and jailed in developing countries. We must extend the Nordic model to every part of the globe. Every moment we engage developing countries in changing their laws to protect women not buyers, every time we gain support for women in poverty where misogyny drives masses of desperate women into the sex industries, every time a buyer of women’s bodies for sexual use and abuse is held to account we will have won against Amnesty, but more importantly, women’s rights to human dignity and peace will expand exponentially.

But even winning the Nordic model in state after state is not enough. Amnesty International and the sex industries have severely eroded universal human rights in their promotion of prostitution. Feminists, by contrast, are working to expand human rights for women. The Convention Against Sexual Exploitation is a draft United Nations treaty which would make all forms of sexual exploitation — including prostitution and pornography — a violation of human rights, would contest the power men exert through their sexual control and domination of women, would require protection for women in the migrating process, and calls for state funding for support programs for survivors.

In addition, Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson have formulated a human rights model for non-state torture. Instead of confining guarantees of human rights protections only to victims of state torture, in their approach to United Nations human rights law, prostitution and all forms of violence against women would be considered “non-state torture.”

Mounting a global campaign to make sexual exploitation a violation of human rights would give strength and support to state campaigns to bring down the heinous legalization of prostitution which India and other less developed countries are considering. Former President Jimmy Carter also speaks to the need for this Convention and calls upon the United Nations to adopt it. Under the direction and with the human rights commitment of the Carter Center’s Karin Ryan, a meeting of activists adopted these recommendations at a May 2015 World Summit: Ending Sexual Exploitation 2025 which supports the Convention Against Sexual Exploitation.

At no other time in history have we had the voices of survivors speaking out about the repeated harm done to them when they were bought by customers. Amnesty’s August 11, 2015 decision to adopt a pro-prostitution policy is a slap in their faces, a call to send them back to the streets and brothels. It also calls for the deprivation of global human rights adopted by United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. Amnesty joins other sex industry driven organizations who have colonized the world of global human rights. UN AIDS, UN Development Programs and UN Women now, like Amnesty, recognize the “rights” of “sex workers” — the chief promoters of and fronts for the male/misogynist sex industries.

If we are to retain global human rights and if women are not to be reduced to men’s sexual objects, then we must bring our global outrage over Amnesty’s promotion of the sex industry to the United Nations, demanding the Convention Against Sexual Exploitation which shall include formulations of non-state torture — that which men do to the women they buy for “sex.”

We have the commitment, we know what needs to be done. Let us see who in the human rights community will step forward with the support to enable us to mount this campaign. The alternative is to leave women, globally, to live with sex industry’s continued colonization of women’s bodies and continued erosion of human rights.

We dare not let that happen.

Postscript: While I was writing this article yesterday, I heard the news of former President Jimmy Carter’s cancer. He stood strong with us and in global leadership against Amnesty. Let us honor him, a true champion of human rights, by raising our campaign to bring the Convention Against Sexual Exploitation to the United Nations.

Kathleen Barry, Professor Emerita is the author of Female Sexual Slavery and The Prostitution of Sexuality: the Global Exploitation of Women, cofounder of CATW, and originator of the Convention Against Sexual Exploitation also working against militarized masculinity in Unmaking War, Remaking Men. Find her online:

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  • Bronwen Davies

    I think it is important to note that Amnesty International is a membership organisation. I am a member myself and have been for many years.
    I have been deeply shocked to find that this policy has been adopted without any attempt to inform members about the issues and consult with them. I understand that it was discussed at the AGM of Amnesty International UK in April 2015, and conflicting motions were passsed, so our delegated to the recent Board meeting did not go with a clear mandate for or against the proposed policy. I have yet to find out how the UK delegates voted.
    I was not aware prior to the AGM that the proposed new policy would be on the agenda and I did not attend the AGM, although I could have done, had I been aware of the issue at the time. I suspect that many others find themselves in a similar position.
    I am sure many other feminists are also members of Amnesty International, in various of its sections. We need to join together, somehow, both internationally and within each section, to ensure that our lobbying to change this policy in 2017 is co-ordinated to the same end.

    • Meghan Murphy

      That makes me LIVID Bronwen. I am appalled at how manipulative and deceptive Amnesty has shown themselves to be.

    • I Clare Thomas

      The announcement that the policy was being discussed at the AGM in the UK was given in the Spring addition of the general members newspaper. It was on the last page and the space given to it was about 2cm high. The announcement read that ‘amnesty felt there was a gap in their policies protecting sex workers rights and they were proposing full legalisation’ For one moment I actually thought it wasn’t an April Fool, it was so ludicrously in opposition to all the evidence, the huge amount of research done by the EU parliament and the cross party committee chaired by Gavin Shuker MP, which had just annoinced their unanimous support for the Nordic model in the UK. The 2cm square announcement invited you to send for the policy document. When I received them I realised with horror that there was no attempt at an objective discussion. It’s main stance was about the right to sex rather than protection from abuse. We had a vote at my local amnesty meeting and we voted against, but it was obvious that people were confused and not on board with current debate – most had to have it explained that prostituion wasn’t illegal in the UK, but running a brothel and street soliciting were. . I didn’t go to the AGM but my friend did and said when it came to the debate on the Sunday afternoon there was a sudden announcement that the time for debate was to be halved and speakers were cut off after 2 minutes. ‘Sex workers’ who were obviously pimps from Turkey and other places had joined just for the AGM vote. Most of the members were confused and did not understand the issue or even that ‘sex worker’ was an umbrella term including pimps ands brothel workers. My friend said there was a disturbing hostile and intimidating atmosphere which she had never experienced before at an Amnesty event. Everyone at the top table seemed for the vote, and after she spoke for the Nordic model, one of the staff came and asked for her name and and names of others in our group who opposed the policy. Given Amnest UKs every attempt to rail road this vote through it was a hugely significant and encouraging that they still did not get a clear vote for it. When I discovered the Douglas Fox input I was horrified but not completely shocked as the level of bias and duplicitous pro sex lobby prpogamda was so obvious. There has never been any genuine attempt to discuss this subjec objectively.. Looking back I now wonder if the previous director and deputy (both female) weren’t got rid of to make way for this. The huge payoffs were of course a scandal and no member ever worked out what had been so wrong with them that half a million pounds was needed to get rid of Khan. And there were further redundancies made to the women who ran the VAW project who stood up to Fox.
      I do absolutely agree with this article which says that this has been the moment which we should use as a real call to action. i have been thinking this for the last few days as well. I thought erode this tha t at least the west where women had increasing political power would all follow the Nordic route. I I now realise just how powerful the prosextrade trade lobby is – and just how misognist the world could become. Between Amnesty’s policy and iSIS I feel the world could be desperately bleak for women in the 21st century.
      I feel quite isolated as an individual but 100% passionate about fighting this. I wonder how much time we should spend on Amnesty and feel we should perhaps now turn to world wide lobbying of politicians, and yes the UN. In the UK no party will declare a policy on this – I wrote to all parties, last election but it was never taken up. The media particularly the TV channels have not been helpful – I’m still angry at Chaneel 4 giving Rupert Everert 3 programmes to promote the sex trade. hes an actor with no expertise. The Belle de Jour series which portrayed the happy hooker image left a generation of young girls thinking it was all ’empowering’ fun. How can we organise ourselves? How can I as one individual remote from London, campaign.? We need some coherence here in our campaigning, and have one or two clear lobbying groups to speak to the media. The End Demand campaign in the UK has been too quiet. They don’t seem together yet.

      • Bronwen Davies

        Clare, thank you so much for your very detailed reply. I regularly read the quarterly newsletter but I’d missed the article you refer to and at that time I had no idea of the background or issues myself, so to be perfectly honest even if I had seen it I wouldn’t have been alarmed. I was aware of tensions within AI at the time of the restructuring, but I had not stopped seeing it as a “good” organisation. It seems true, to me, that AI UK is much more highly aware of women and women’s rights than it was five years ago, so I had assumed that this would continue to be the case.
        You are literally the first woman I have communicated with who is another AI UK member. All the other women posting in the groups I belong to online don’t seem to be members of AI UK themselves. I will take some time to read your reply again, later. I don’t think the right thing to do is to leave AI UK, but I’m a bit daunted by the thought of the work needed to overturn this policy.

  • I Clare Thomas

    Meant to say- I thought it was an April Fool!

  • I Clare Thomas

    sorry realise whole piece full of typos- late at night and very tired (and angry)….

  • I am not surprised about Amnesty International’s underhanded tactics, as my sister, who has a law degree and has done some work for them (she has since decided to get out of law as there is a paucity of jobs in the field of human rights, and because of disillusionment with the real aims of many non-profits) told me this isn’t the first time they’ve come under fire for corruption.

    After reading through comments on this issue countless times, I have a real question. It seems every single time this issue is raised, people in support of AI’s policy begin talking about the old tired trope of sex workers who choose this work because they have greater flexibility and can earn more than they could working as bank tellers or receptionists, etc. They never seem to listen to anyone talking about how the vast majority of the women in prostitution are doing it out of *true* desperation, not because they don’t want to work as bank tellers; that lobbying governments to give support and job training to poor women might be better than lobbying governments to legalize all aspects of prostitution, including pimping and brothel-owning; that most women in prostitution not only experience horrendous abuse at the hands of pimps and johns (many of whom go to prostitutes in order to abuse them), but that they experience prostitution itself as traumatic, because there is a difference between washing dishes and scrubbing floors when you don’t want to and having sex when you don’t want to. They don’t seem to listen to statistics about rape, murder, coerción, or PTSD. They always return to the “right” of the “happy hooker” to sell herself to the higher bidder without any reflection on what decriminalization will do to the majority of women who quite literally have no other options. Nor do they listen to the argument that putting a rubber stamp of approval on men’s sexual exploitation of such women will only make the problem worse (and increase outright trafficking). Nor do they give much credence to the argument that men’s feeling of entitlement to access women’s bodies at any cost–to the women, to society–is an issue that affects us all.

    My question is how do we make them listen?

  • Please forgive typos, Chrome is on the blink and Internet Explorer seems to want to change everything I write (either to another form of the English word or to Spanish).

  • I guess, to clarify, that my question is, are they really genuinely on the side of the prostituted, or is it all just lip service to “sex workers’ rights” in order to uphold a male institution of privilege?

    Because if they really are on the side of women in prostitution, why don’t they do some real research and find out the truth for themselves?

    I used to think differently about prostitution, before I began doing research for the book I’m writing. I always knew–in my bones–that prostitution would draw the most vulnerable and damaged women. But I also thought it was “cool” to be sexually empowered and do it for the money, if you could manage it without being harmed (a big if).

    It wasn’t until I began researching that I realized just how bad prostitution was, and what an invisible, pervasive human rights abuse it was, and it made me sick. This research was easy (Google, and a few books I read, after doing research online). I read both sides of the argument and it was easy to see which won out, as I believe majority rules, when majority is not insane–i.e., when it comes to causing as much good and as little harm for the largest number of people (a utilitarian belief, which doesn’t sanction a society in which the majority want to harm the minority because it causes them great pleasure, as causing bodily injury to others without cause–not in self-defense and not to further their health, such as in the case of surgery–would be an automatic no-no). I mean, it’s secular humanism, I guess. Just the idea of not harming people being the morally right one. So it was easy, with even the bare mínimum of research, as study after study of the voiceless have given voice to the fact that the majority of the world’s women–mostly poor, brown girls who never stood a chance–experience prostitution as torture. (And if we’re lobbying for it to be legalized, will it now be state torture? I think it will).

    So what gives? Are these people who think legalizing sex work will result in more safety for prostitutes merely misguided allies who need to do a bit of research, or are they wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing? What is it they’re really fighting for? I think the first thing we need to do, in order to combat this effectively, is understand where they’re coming from.

  • As a survivor of sex trafficking, Amnesty have re-traumatized me beyond words. What can I do as an individual? I have written a blog following their decision. Amnesty has made one of the most devastating errors bestowed upon humanity.