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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start, and as was recalled by the Beijing Conference in 1995, women’s rights are by essence a global issue, never to be rescinded because of cultural or other differences between societies.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.

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