Controversy over Prostitution at the Amnesty UK AGM

In January, we posted about a motion being brought to the Amnesty International UK (AIUK) AGM in April 2017. The motion called for Amnesty’s current policy of lobbying for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade (including pimps and brothel owners) to be reviewed. This article explains what happened at the AGM and afterwards.

Nordic Model Now! was not involved in bringing the motion. However, we fully supported it because we have seen how unhelpful the current policy is. For example, at the recent BMA Junior Doctors Conference, Amnesty’s policy was used to justify a policy supporting the full decriminalisation of the sex trade. Amnesty is held in very high regard – so many people assume that their recommendations are based on solid research and unbiased assessment of the evidence – when on this issue, that is far from the truth.

What happened at the 2017 AIUK AGM

Before the AGM, Amnesty members who supported the motion contacted AIUK to ask for a stall so that they could provide attendees with leaflets and background information to the motion. This request was turned down, as was their request to run a workshop on the motion.

Determined to do their best to inform attendees of the harms of prostitution, not just to those embedded in it, but also to gender equality and society as a whole, and of the success of the Nordic Model in Sweden, they gave out Nordic Model Now! flyers in the lunch break. One member placed them on seats in the auditorium and another handed them out in the lobby, making sure only to give them to people who clearly wanted them. There was a lot of interest and people genuinely wanted to engage and find out more. However, within a short period, conference organisers told them to stop and gathered the unclaimed flyers up from the seats. Apparently there had been an announcement at the start of the day that giving out unapproved flyers was prohibited, but the women in question had been delayed and missed this announcement.

The supporters of the motion then only had four three-minute slots during the debate on the motion. It was obviously impossible to do justice to the arguments in such a short time, so they asked attendees to abstain from voting if they did not fully understand the evidence and issues. More than 700 members followed this advice, clearly feeling they had not been given sufficient information to make an informed decision. The motion was not passed but the members who brought it were delighted that 479 (34.4%) people voted for it, compared to 914 (65.6%) who voted against it, because this shows that the official Amnesty policy has significant opposition among AIUK members.

We suspect that this rattled the AIUK management and that may explain what happened next.

What happened next

A few weeks later one of the women who was giving out Nordic Model Now! flyers received an email from Kerry Moscogiuri, Director of Supporter Campaigning and Communications, saying that she had received a formal complaint “relating to the handing out of leaflets at the event and to the nature of the link contained in the leaflet.” She went on to explain that she had concluded that there were grounds to initiate an investigation under the Activist Code of Conduct to establish whether “there are reasonable grounds for believing that a breach of the Code of Conduct has occurred.”

Three days later, she emailed again with a copy of the formal complaint and the following photos of the leaflet in question.

It was of course the Nordic Model Now! leaflet, which says such controversial things as, “Women and girls are not commodities for others to get rich on;” “Gender equality is not possible while men can buy women and girls;” and “Prostitution is not the answer to women’s poverty.”

The formal complaint, from Alexander Rhys, the AGM chair, explained that he was alerted during the lunch break that unapproved leaflets were being handed out and went and asked the people who were doing this to stop. At the start of the next session he reiterated the rule about not handing out unapproved leaflets and that he had the power to expel from the conference anyone who did not respect this rule.

His complaint went on to say that the leaflets in question had a link to a website that contains a blog post:

“… about an Amnesty representative which is offensive to the individual concerned, suggesting that the particular Amnesty activist is a purchaser of sex work.

As Chair of the AGM it is my responsibility to ensure that all of our members, and staff feel that they are welcome, and safe at the event. The AGM is also covered under the Activist Code of Conduct, which covers all of our members.

Section 5K of the Activist Code of Conduct refers to Harassment and Bullying and includes:

Bullying may be characterised as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipients’.”

By handing out this leaflet to delegates this had the risk of putting that activist in a situation where members of the organisation would see this offensive article about them, which I would suggest falls under the above definition with the Code.

I therefore feel I have no choice but to send you this as a formal complaint under the Activist Code of Conduct Complaints Process.”

The blog post in question is Amnesty’s Dangerous Wishful Thinking on Prostitution, in which we described the inappropriate and somewhat intimidating behaviour of a man who was staffing the Amnesty stall at the Unison Women’s Conference in February this year. The article was originally written for the Morning Star, where it appeared in their special International Women’s Day supplement.

We did not include the anecdote about “Amnesty man” lightly. It seemed to us to encapsulate what those of us who are campaigning for the Nordic Model are up against: A refusal to listen to women who do not agree with legitimising prostitution; a refusal to listen to women who have an analysis of prostitution as a cornerstone of the patriarchal system that subordinates women as a group to men as a group. What other explanation is there for this refusal to listen to the evidence – except that men intuitively know how the institution of prostitution underpins their unfair advantages at the expense of women?

We did not say in the article that Amnesty man was a punter. We did not name him. (We didn’t know his name.) We simply expressed what probably every single woman who witnessed his behaviour was thinking, and what one of them actually said out loud.

So let’s go back to Alex Rhys’s formal complaint. There was evidence in our blog post of inappropriate and intimidating behaviour from an Amnesty representative. Nordic Model Now! was there with permission from the Unison Women’s Conference and we represent Unison’s position on prostitution. Yet Amnesty man apparently contradicted the AIUK Activist Code of Conduct, which states that activists should “treat everyone with respect, including those who disagree with us.” It seems to us that in refusing to listen and respect our position on this issue that so uniquely affects women (even if he disagreed with it), he was behaving in a sexist manner.

We did consider making a complaint to the Unison Women’s Conference about this, but life is short and with a million pressures on our time, we did not in fact get it together.

But what Alex Rhys is concerned with is not that a male Amnesty representative behaved in such an intimidating and sexist way that it risked bringing AIUK into disrepute; nor that AIUK AGM attendees should be fully informed before voting on the motion; but that Amnesty man might be embarrassed by the suggestion that he might be a “purchaser of sex work.”

This is extraordinary, seeing as Amnesty lobbies for the entire prostitution system to be fully decriminalised – which presumably means that they think prostitution-buying or “purchasing sex work” is absolutely fine. Why then should Amnesty man be embarrassed? After all, if he is indeed a punter, according to Amnesty’s philosophy he is giving work to disadvantaged women.

Or is Amnesty in fact conflicted about the issue? Does it actually think that prostitution-buying is a shameful activity that exploits (mostly) disadvantaged women and girls?

It does seem odd. And we are at a loss to understand the lengths they will go to in order to ensure that members are not exposed to arguments against their policy. If their policy is truly the best option, surely they have nothing to fear?

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), an organisation that has actively campaigned for full decriminalisation of the sex trade since 1975, had a high profile at the conference. They spoke against the motion and handed out flyers unimpeded – presumably because they were “approved.” While the ECP claims to represent women in prostitution, in reality their views are partisan.

There are a large number of current and former prostituted women who campaign against full decriminalisation and who are strongly in favour of the Nordic Model – a number of them are members of Nordic Model Now! We wish AIUK would listen to them.

Further reading

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

Anna Fisher

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