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Is the UN Trying to Legalize Prostitution Worldwide?

In Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, United Nations, Women's Rights, World Law on October 15, 2013 at 7:13 PM


By Bernard Henry

In February 2012 Claude Guéant, the then Minister of Interior of France, caused a stir in the country by stating that “Not all civilizations are equal”, adding that one of the yardsticks against which a society could be viewed as “civilized” was “the subservience of women”[i].

For months, Guéant had spoken out almost obsessively against Islam, even branding all of France’s Muslim population “a problem” once. That latest statement was thus just another attack on a community heavily targeted by Guéant’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), to attract voters from the anti-Muslim extreme right National Front. Eventually, President Nicolas Sarkozy and the UMP were defeated at the polls in May 2012 by Socialist Party candidate François Hollande. As for the National Front, it scored a historic 17% and was able to deprive Sarkozy of its much-needed support for the second round.

Guéant’s statement was nonsensical in many ways, not least because the subservience of women is anything but a matter of allegedly unequal civilizations. As the Charter of the United Nations has provided from the very start, and as was recalled by the Beijing Conference in 1995, women’s rights are by essence a global issue, never to be rescinded because of cultural or other differences between societies.

Then, just what is to be deducted from the proposal by two United Nations (UN) agencies to simply legalize, throughout the world, prostitution and everything that goes with it?

This is not a joke. In a September 20 appeal to the UN leadership[ii], the New York-based women’s rights organization Equality Now expressed concern about the recommendations contained in the Global Commission on HIV and the Law’s report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (2012), published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (2012), backed by the UNDP, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

In these two reports, Equality Now wrote, the UN agencies tell Member States that “in order to support efforts to reduce HIV/AIDS and to promote the human rights of people in prostitution, all aspects of the commercial sex industry should be decriminalized, including pimping, brothel-keeping and the purchase of sex”. The organization denounces these recommendations as being “in direct opposition to international human rights standards,” adding that these “also largely ignore the experiences and views of survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking.”

Direct opposition to human rights standards is right. When it comes to women’s rights, the international legal instrument of reference is the UN’s own Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). And CEDAW’s Article 6 provides, “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.” Not quite what the two reports suggest, indeed.

Besides the letter of the law, evidence on the ground, too, does not seem to support the UN agencies’ claims. As Equality Now further recalls, “[I]n 2000 Nongovernmental Organizations and sex trafficking survivors worked to ensure that the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the “UN Trafficking Protocol”) defined trafficking to reflect the wide variety of sex trafficking survivors’ experiences”.

The UN Trafficking Protocol’s definition, Equality Now stresses, was the result of years of discussion and negotiation by countries and reflects a carefully drawn political consensus that should not be challenged by UN agencies. Yet the two reports disturbingly recommend revising and narrowing the definition. Should this recommendation be adopted, many victims would lose all chances of being recognized as victims of sex trafficking and their traffickers would now enjoy legal impunity for their crimes.

Sex trafficking and prostitution – two scourges that would soon be gone if there were no buyers in the first place. So why is the United Nations calling for the removal of domestic laws that make them illegal?

Sex trafficking and prostitution – two scourges that would soon be gone if there were no buyers in the first place. So why is the United Nations calling for the removal of domestic laws against them?

Ironically, in a report issued in September, UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women and UN Volunteers actually established a direct link between rape perpetration and the purchase of commercial sex, noting that both stem from gender inequality. So why are UNDP and UNFPA now advocating the decriminalization of prostitution – and accordingly the inherent decriminalization of rape?

When it comes to protecting the rights of people in prostitution, including the right to health – especially to protection from HIV – safety and freedom from violence and exploitation, throwing in the towel and letting both pimps and customers walk away with their dirty business is obviously not the way.

On September 30 the AWC issued an appeal to the UN, in line with Equality Now’s own recommendations, urging the World organization to clarify its position on the decriminalization of prostitution in all its aspects and ensure that the future development of policies and programs affecting people in the commercial sex industry includes the views of survivors and groups working on the issue.

In the Preamble to the UN Charter, “[T]he peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women”. There can be no equality between human beings when a man can officially buy another man as a slave, all right. Now what kind of equality can there be between a man and a woman when the latter can officially be rented for sex? We would very much like an answer.

Bernard Henry is the External Relations Officer of the Representative Office to the United Nations in Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.


[i] Al Jazeera, « Sarkozy ally says all civilisations not equal », February 5, 2012.

Foundations for the New Humanism – 1

In Foundations for the New Humanism on October 8, 2013 at 9:58 AM

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed the Decade 2013-2022 as the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures building on the efforts of the UNESCO General Conference which had called for « the development of a universal global consciousness » based on « dialogue and cooperation in a climate of trust and mutual understanding » and for a « new humanism for the twenty-first century. »

Thus we look at the creative efforts of individuals who built bridges of understanding over the divides of cultures, social classes and ethnicity to create a foundation for the New Humanism.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888—1975)

By René Wadlow


If we claim to be civilized, if we love justice, if we cherish mercy, if we are not ashamed to own the reality of the inward light, we must affirm that we are first and foremost Citizens of the World … Our planet has grown too small for parochial patriotism.

S. Radhakrishnan, Philosopher and President of India (1962-1967)

The present crisis in human affairs is due to a profound crisis in human consciousness, a lapse from the organic wholeness of life. Today, there is a crisis of perception, a widespread sense of unease concerning old forms of thinking which require that we must recreate and re-enact a vision of the world based on the elements of reverence, order, and human dignity, without which no society can be held together.”

As Radhakrishnan pointed out, the next stage of human evolution is in the human psyche “in his mind and spirit, in the emergencies of a larger understanding and awareness, in the development of a new integration of character adequate to the new age. When he gains a philosophic consciousness and an intensity of understanding, a profound apprehension of the meaning of the whole, there will result a more adequate social order which will influence not only individuals but peoples and nations. We have to fight for this order first in our souls, then in the world outside.”

Radhakrishnan repeatedly stressed the close interdependence between the need to recover the visions of the Higher Self in each person and the need to move beyond a narrow, nationalistic view of the world. “If we are to help the present society to grow organically into a world order, we must make it depend on the universal and enduring values which are implanted in the human heart that each individual is sacred, that we are born for love and not hate…We have learned to live peacefully in larger and larger units. The concept of a community has grown from a narrow tribal basis to the Nation State. There is no stopping short of a world community…Thus we rejoice that there is an institution like the United Nations, for it is the symbol and hope of the new world, of the light dawning beyond the clouds, clouds piled up by our past patterns of behaviour, past ways of speaking, judging and acting, which do not answer to the deep desire of the peoples of the world for peace and progress. We owe it to ourselves to find out why the light does not spread and disperse the darkness, why the sky is still clouded by fear and suspicion, hate and bitterness.”

It is rare for a world citizen to become president of a State and even rarer to find a professional philosopher as head of State outside Plato’s Republic. Radhakrishnan was a rare individual who played an important intellectual role in three crucial periods:

1) The revival of Indian thought in the 1920s—1930s after a long period of marginalization;

2) The Second World War period when a new world society was being planned and when India was on the eve of becoming a fully independent State;

3) The first years of Indian independence and the start of the Cold War, the Korean conflict and the need to help reduce Soviet-American Cold War tensions.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born into a middle class Brahman family in south India near Madras. His family valued education, and he attended Christian-sponsored secondary schools and did his higher education at Madras Christian College. During his education he came to study classical Greek and Western thought, especially Plato, Aristotle and came to know Christian religious views. He was confronted with Western teachers who held a low opinion of the Hinduism they saw around them but who were active in promoting Christian social action, especially in the fields of health, education and poverty reduction. Madras was also the headquarters of the world-wide Theosophical Society which agreed with the Christians that Hinduism was asleep but who felt that it could be awakened from within by its deeper values and did not have to copy the West. This was the avenue which Radhakrishnan followed, a recognition of the stagnant state of much of Indian religious thought and practice but a confidence that the answer lay in a revitalization of the best of Indian thought such as the Upanisads and the Bhagavad Gita.

Radhakrishnan cited the status of Indian thought described by the religious reformer Sri Aurobindo; “If an ancient Indian of the time of the Upanisads, of the Buddha, or the later classical age were to be set down in modern India, he would see his race clinging to forms and shells and rags of the past and missing nine-tenths of its nobler meaning…he would be amazed by the extent of the mental poverty, the immobility, the static repetition, the cessation of science, the long sterility of art, the comparative feebleness of the creative intuition.”

Radhakrishnan was aware of the then status quo. As he wrote “Stagnant systems, like pools, breed obnoxious growths, while flowing rivers constantly renew their waters from fresh springs of inspiration. There is nothing wrong in absorbing the culture of other peoples; only we must enhance, raise and purify the elements we take over, fuse them with the best in our own. Indian philosophy acquires a meaning and a justification for the present only if it advances and ennobles life.”

For Radhakrishnan, it was Rabindranath Tagore who best represented this new, flowing river, and his first book was The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (1918). Tagore remained his ideal. While teaching philosophy at the University of Calcutta, he saw the impact of Tagore’s thought in the cultural revival of Bengal.

Radhakrishnan’s reputation for his analysis and presentation of Indian philosophy grew, especially that many of his essays were published in Western journals. Thus in 1929, he was called to teach in one of the colleges of Oxford University and in 1936 he was appointed to a newly created chair of Indian thought at Oxford University.

Thus it was in England that the second phase of his intellectual contribution began. As the clouds of the Second World War were gathering in the late 1930s, he stressed the need for a world vision, freed from the aggressive nationalism of the times. He joined the English branch of the recently formed Association of World Citizens and started meeting with thinkers who would be the creators of UNESCO such as Julian Huxley. Radhakrishnan was to play an important role as the 1948 chairman of the Executive Council of UNESCO and in developing the UNESCO emphasis on the study of Asian culture.

As he said “If we are to shape a community of spirit among the people of the world which is essential for a truly human society and lasting peace, we must forge bonds of international understanding. This can be achieved by an acquaintance with the masterpieces of literature, art and science produced in different countries. When we are in contact with them, we are lifted from the present and immediate passions and interests and move on the mountain tops where we breath a larger air…For out of the anguish of our times is being born a new unity of all mankind in which the free spirit of man can find peace and safety. It is in our power to end the fears which afflict humanity, and save the world from the disaster that impends. Only we should be men of a universal cast of mind, capable of interpreting peoples to one another and developing faith that is the only antidote to fear. The threat to our civilization can be met only on the deeper levels of consciousness. If we fail to overcome the discord between power and spirit, we will be destroyed by the forces which we had the knowledge to create but not the wisdom to control.”

With the independence of India came the third and most public of Radhakrishnan’s roles. In 1948, he was named as the first Ambassador of India to the Soviet Union then headed by Stalin (1948-1952). While he had little personal sympathy for Marxist thought, he realized that he was in a key post at a crucial time, as the Cold War was turning hot with the outbreak of war in Korea and the possibility of war spreading to other parts of Asia. He had written a book on the relations between India and Chinese philosophy and so had a particular interest in events in China.

Radhakrishnan was among the few in India who studied deeply Buddhist philosophy and tried to place the Buddha in the context of Indian thought. Thus events of Southeast Asia and the French war in Indochina were of particular concern.

In 1952, he returned to India to become Vice-President and in 1962 became the President of India for a five-year term. In the Indian political system, executive power is in the office of the Prime Minister rather than the President. During Radhakrishnan’s political life the Prime Minister was Jawaharlal Nehru who shared many common interests but who kept a close hold on political decision making.

Radhakrishnan put his political energy into the area he knew best, the improvement of university education and the development of culture. As a man of south India in a government dominated by people of the north, he was a symbol of national unity. As a person with deep knowledge of both Indian and Western philosophical thought, he was the model of the “meeting of East and West.” A true world citizen.

* * *

For a useful overview of his philosophical thinking see Paul A. Schilpp (Ed). The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1952)

For a good picture of his bridge-building role, see S. J. Samartha, Introduction to Radakrishnan: The Man and His Thought. Dr. Samartha was Director of the program Dialogue among Living Faiths at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

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