Report: Sex Workers Face Widespread Abuse of Civil and Human Rights

This Friday, November 5, 2010, the United States will be reviewed as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The UPR is a relatively new way of addressing human rights in the UN system that came into being in 2008. During the review of the U.S. on Friday, other countries will ask questions about this country’s overall human rights record and propose recommendations that the United States will need to respond to over the next three months. The session can be viewed online as a webcast. This review is a historic occasion because the U.S. typically has a limited engagement with international human rights treaties and mechanisms.

Advocates for the rights of sex workers used the upcoming review of the United States to prepare the first comprehensive national statement on the rights challenges faced by people in the sex trade and people who are affected by anti-prostitution policies more generally (download a PDF of the 5 page report here). The report illustrates the ways in which stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers in the United States result in widespread abuses of civil and human rights, including the right to be free from discrimination; freedom from torture; the right to healthcare; and the right to equal protection under the law. These abuses are rampant in working class, majority African-American and Latino, and urban communities. Arrests for sex work can lead to a cycle of continued exclusion from housing, marginalization from formal employment, and re-imprisonment. Furthermore, law enforcement officers frequently commit physical and sexual violence against sex workers, while simultaneously failing to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime, denying justice or support to sex workers who seek their help.

Two representatives from the Best Practices Policy Project, a group that coordinated the production of the report from sex worker advocates in the U.S in partnership with the Desiree Alliance and the Sexual Rights Initiative, are currently in Geneva presenting summary recommendations to diplomatic delegations and encouraging countries to ask the United States questions about its human rights record with respect to sex workers and other communities affected by the policing of sexual exchange. While few countries are prepared to be outspoken to defend sex worker rights, the activists on the ground report some encouraging conversations with country delegations, and remain hopeful that this will be the first time sex worker concerns are raised within the UPR milieu.