The proposal to decriminalize sex buyers and sellers has been denounced by women’s groups such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Gloria Steinem.
PARIS — The question of what should be done about prostitution is as old as the profession, but the issue is front and center again, as a leading human-rights group proposes decriminalization, while some countries push toward harsher penalties for those who pay for sex.
In England, France and Ireland, lawmakers are considering new measures — and in the cases of Northern Ireland and Canada, are enforcing new laws — that impose penalties on clients, using a model adopted in Sweden in 1999.
But the effort to crack down on a largely male clientele while sheltering a mostly female workforce is taking place just as the human-rights group Amnesty International is advocating a new course: decriminalizing all prostitution, for buyers and sellers.
At an international conference this week in Dublin, about 500 Amnesty delegates from more than 80 countries will vote on whether to advocate the elimination of all penalties for prostitution, based on “evidence that the criminalization of adult sex work can lead to increased human-rights violations against sex workers.”
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The proposal has been denounced by women’s groups such as the New York-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Gloria Steinem.
“Prostitution has always been considered a domestic matter and now Amnesty could elevate it to a point of international human-rights law,” said Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at the University of Illinois and a former Amnesty board member in the United States. He called that development “significant.”
“But why is the resolution so broad?” he asked. “Everything should be organized around that basic principle of protecting the women and girls. We should be protecting human beings, and not sex work.”
In June, the French National Assembly voted to support a law to penalize clients of prostitutes. Last month, Northern Ireland started enforcing new regulations that carry 1,000-pound fines (about $1,500) and prison terms for buyers. Canada instituted similar laws this year. Politicians in England and Ireland are exploring the Swedish or Nordic model to make paying for sex a crime.
Sweden passed its law focusing on buyers 16 years ago, and street prostitution in major Swedish cities has dropped by more than half since 1995. The number of men who said they purchased sex also fell, by more than 40 percent in that period, according to a report this year by a Swedish government agency.
But Amnesty International, formed in 1961 to bring attention to political prisoners, argues for a different approach in a leaked proposal. That document contends that sexual desire is a fundamental need and that punishing buyers “may amount to a violation of the right to privacy and undermine the rights to free expression and health.”
The group also cites the benefits for buyers with physical and psychological disabilities who “feel safe to express their sexuality” and “develop a stronger sense of self with their relationships with sex workers.”
Amnesty also sides with the argument, made recently by prostitutes in France, that penalizing customers would drive prostitution further underground, making the workers more vulnerable to dangers.
The policy vote comes as greater attention is being paid to human trafficking, which often results in forced prostitution, or sex work as a means of survival. Pope Francis has been outspoken, calling it a plague on humanity and urging legislation to penalize traffickers and help victims recover.
The decriminalization stance has roiled some of Amnesty’s 2 million paying members. Some complain that the draft policy was conceived at Amnesty’s headquarters in London. Over the past two years, various versions have been reviewed by the organization’s national chapters, and a consensus emerged supporting decriminalization for just the prostitutes, according to minutes of organizational meetings. Amnesty says it has refined its proposal further, but declined to release the latest version.
If a majority approves the decriminalization proposal at the Dublin conference, it will be shaped into a final form by Amnesty’s board. The stance will not have any immediate impact, except it will be the organization’s official position as it lobbies in various countries.
Nevertheless, women’s groups have been critical, arguing that such a position by an organization of Amnesty’s stature could sway policy and result in legalized brothels and owners free to recruit women from poorer countries as prostitutes.
“It really undermines the whole concept of human rights to call it the rights of men to buy other human beings for sex,” said Jessica Neuwirth, a former Amnesty member and the founder of Equality Now, an international women’s-rights group.