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Toward a Human Rights Approach to Sex Work Policy

Protecting the human rights of sex workers is connected with broader efforts to ensure sexual and reproductive rights and address the problems of the U.S. criminal justice system.
 
 
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Last Friday, March 18, 2011, was a day of celebration for sex worker activists and allies, as well as for global advocates of sexual health, justice, and human rights. Why the celebration? The United States made public its new position that: “No one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.”

The first part of this position regarding sexual orientation was not a surprise. (Despite predictable and periodic right-wing backlashes, GLBT justice movements have continued to make gains at all levels of US society, including increased federal recognition by the Obama administration that sexual orientation is not a valid litmus test for full citizenship.)

The second part of this statement, however – a commitment to uphold the human rights of all sex workers -- is completely unprecedented at the federal level of the United States.

The occasion for this public statement on the part of the US was the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UPR is new process where the UN community evaluates the human rights record of each member state. Upon its first UPR review in November 2010, the US received 228 recommendations by its global peers for improving its human rights record, including recommendation #86 from member state Uruguay: “undertake awareness-raising campaigns for combating stereotypes and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and [transgender people], and ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of [sex] workers to violence and human rights abuses. [i]

On Friday, March 18, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, the US presented its written response to each of the 228 recommendations (including the one listed at the top of this post). Additionally, Harold Koh, Legal Advisor for the US Department of State, delivered a verbal summary statement of the US commitment to human rights. Invoking the spirit of more recent US history including the civil rights movement, Koh stated that it is now “a fundamental American belief” that “society as a whole is transformed for the better through our work to protect and promote the civil and human rights of its least powerful members.”

Following Koh’s remarks, ten UN member state representatives were allowed to read two-minute prepared response statements, followed by statements read by ten civil society representatives. The process of getting a speaking position in this forum resembles a competitive race, with adversarial member states (such as Cuba and Iran) highly motivated to achieve a speaking slot. As a result of perseverance, luck, and sponsorship by the Sexual Rights Initiative and member group Action Canada for Population and Development, sex worker and transgender rights activist Darby Hickey [ii] was able to secure the 10 th and last civil society speaking position. Below are segments from her speech:

Thank you, Mr. President. I am a sex worker and transgender rights activist from the United States. On behalf of hundreds of civil society organizations that called on the U.S. government to ensure the human rights of people engaged in sex work, I would like to both congratulate and thank the U.S. delegation for accepting recommendation #86. We believe that it is the first instance of affirmation of sex workers‚ rights in this forum.

Due to stigma and criminalization, sex workers -- and those profiled as such -- are subjected to violence and discrimination, and are often barred from necessary services and the right to equal protection under the law. State agents themselves, specifically police officers, commit physical and sexual violence against sex workers. These abuses are particularly rampant in low income, African-American and immigrant communities and also greatly affect transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay people. Globally, U.S. policies, such as the "anti-prostitution pledge," have negatively affected international HIV/AIDS efforts.

 
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