UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is facing calls to reject reports calling for laws on the sex trade to be relaxed. Photograph: Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters
Former prostitutes and groups campaigning against sex trafficking will launch an international protest against UN reports that recommend the decriminalisation of pimping, brothel-keeping and the purchase of sex.
As global leaders gather in New York for the UN general assembly, the protesters claim that decriminalisation of the sex trade will endanger women.
“Governments around the world look to the United Nations to determine their policy and I am dismayed that any part of the UN would call for the decriminalisation of pimping and brothel-keeping,” said Lauren Hersh, the New York director of the women’s rights group Equality Now.
The pressure group is writing to Ban Ki-moon and other branches of the UN on Sunday with co-signatures from lobby groups in the UK, US and around the world.
“We don’t believe these reports’ recommendations will make women safer and decriminalisation provides an attractive environment for traffickers, pimps and organised crime,” said Hersh.
Having lobbied privately in vain to change the recommendations since the reports came out last year, she is now taking an expanded protest to the secretary general.
Stella Marr, a former prostitute and founder of the US group Sex Trafficking Survivors United, said few people are prostitutes by genuine choice, too many end up murdered and the vast majority would leave the trade if they felt there was a viable alternative.
“I was sex trafficked in New York for 10 years. Decriminalisation empowers punters and traffickers and perpetuates the humiliation and abuse of the young and vulnerable by the richer, older and more powerful,” she said. The reports come from the UN Programme on HIV and Aids (UNAids), which wants to battle the disease among prostitutes by helping them demand condom use and report abuse to the police.
The UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law calls for countries to “repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex” and that ban “immoral earnings” and brothel-keeping, and also demands measures “to ensure safe conditions for sex workers”. A UNAids report on the Asia-Pacific region recommends removing offences relating to soliciting, procuring, pimping and management of brothels – but only among those in the industry voluntarily.
“I don’t think we’re trying to let everyone off the hook, but the reports were trying to reduce Aids. The secretary general has always taken a clear stance against all forms of human trafficking,” said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban.
A London School of Economics report last year by a development professor, Eric Neumayer, claimed that legalisation of prostitution in the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand and the subsequent growth in demand had led to increases in human trafficking, or coercion of people into the industry. The report called this “the dark side of globalisation”.
But a statement from UNAids disputed that its recommendations would put women at risk.
“We do not view sex work as the same as trafficking or sexual exploitation, which are clear human rights abuses and crimes,” said the statement.
In the UK, individual consenting adults are allowed to buy and sell sexual services but activities such as organising prostitution, kerb-crawling and soliciting in public places are illegal.
Groups co-signing Equality Now’s letters to Ban and UNAids include Eaves, the British pressure group against violence and trafficking; Barnardos Ireland; the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in the US, Philippines and Australia; the Social Democratic Party in Denmark; and anti-trafficking organisations in Canada, South Africa, India, Italy, France and Japan.
A Dutch government report in 2007 found that, despite prostitution being legal and regulated in the Netherlands, prostitutes’ emotional wellbeing was lower than pre-legalisation and “the use of sedatives has increased”.
The LSE report concluded that since 1999, when Sweden decriminalised prostitutes selling sex but cracked down on men buying sex, the illegal trafficking of women into the country to meet demand had dropped below 400 a year, while it was four times that in Denmark and was more than 15,000 women a year in Finland, where laws are more lax. While acknowledging reluctantly that it would be tough ever to stamp out prostitution, Hersh insisted that prosecuting clients was the most effective route, along with funding exit strategies for prostitutes into housing, job training and related services. “If you eliminate demand you are going to reduce exploitation and sex trafficking. It’s as much about prevention as anything else in the hope that fewer women and girls are going to end up in prostitution in future,” she said.