Protecting the rights of sex workers during a pandemic

by Astha Madan Grover

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the the pre-existing inequalities in society. It has disproportionately affected already marginalized communities that live outside societal protection mechanisms, often in financially precarious situations.  Sex workers are one such community whose rights need to be protected and respected.  Sex workers are entitled to human rights which include labour rights under the aegis of international protection frameworks.

From an International Law Perspective, the United Nations Charter (1945) obligates all UN bodies and agencies to promote and respect the “dignity and worth of the human person”, and The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) safeguards the right of female sex workers against discrimination.  It also grants them the right to social and economic security, right to privacy, the right to work, the right to freedom from stigma and prejudice and equal protection from the law and freedom from discrimination.  Recent research by Human Rights Watch shows that the criminalisation of sex work increases the vulnerability of sex workers, because attackers perceive them as easy targets due to stigmatization by law enforcement agencies.  Criminalisation has also been found to restrict sex workers’ right to health.

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Issues faced by sex workers due to COVID-19

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers are facing increased harassment and discrimination due to a lack of access to emergency social protection programmes as well as financial difficulties.  In most countries, given the criminalization of some or all aspects of sex work, the informal sector is unable to grant them benefits, such as access to national social protection schemes.  Migrant sex workers also face the risk of deportation due to lack of work permits.

Workers can also get pushed into compromising situations, where they are taken to work with clients who may not have their safety or best interests in mind.  They lower the price to attract more clients so they can support themselves.  Workers may also stay on with abusive partners to avoid homelessness.  Sex workers, who still engage with clients may contract the virus despite taking precautions such as checking for fever and taking the client’s travel history.

Many workers live in shared accommodation,  which enables the rapid spread of the virus.  Sex workers, including those working in brothels, are usually self-employed.  They receive no remuneration for the period during which they do not get work.  Workers are unable to provide for their families due to the lack of clients and may have no other employment prospects as many of them have been forced into prostitution from a young age.

The HIV epidemic is an ever-present threat to sex workers and it has now been added to by COVID-19.  HIV, though does not spread through the air and can be prevented by using protection while engaging in sexual intercourse.  HIV can also be treated through the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).  While it does not completely cure patients, it does enable them to live long and healthy lives.

 

Measures taken worldwide to protect sex workers

Germany legalised sex work in 2002 and has over 200,000 practising sex workers.  The government ordered the closure of all brothels and other ‘non-essential’ businesses such as clubs and bars on the 14th of March.  Susanne Wilp, the spokesperson for the Association of Erotic and Sexual Services Providers, states that business has gone down by 90% and due to their lack of income, they face homelessness.  A similar fate is being faced by sex workers in Amsterdam, where sex work is also legal.

Japan has allowed sex workers to apply for governmental aid in some cases.  However, the requirements for applications are rigid and will force workers to ‘out’ themselves to their communities.  Employers are eligible for subsidies, if their employees have to stay home to care for children during school closures, and sex workers can also receive cash handouts.  (Though the requirements do not clearly state whether the handout is for those who have lost a portion of their income or those who have been dismissed entirely.)  The rigid rules require workers to show proof of income, which is difficult to show as they are usually paid under the table.  Many sex workers do not report their occupation or entire income on their tax returns due to a fear of repercussions and a sense of stigma.  Admitting non-disclosure of income could lead to its own set of consequences.

Thailand has made sex workers eligible for grants in the government’s pandemic relief package and the Malaysian government is providing housing and monthly remuneration for the homeless; most of whom are sex workers.  These workers have to hide their occupation to receive the benefits as sex work is illegal in Malaysia despite being practised widely.

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The Way Forward

Taking sex work online is one way for workers to protect themselves during the pandemic.  This is done through photos, videos, video conferencing, and phone sex.  However, this kind of work has its limitations as well.  Workers may not have the required equipment or technical know-how to facilitate work this way.  Workers with an existing base of online followers find it easier to monetize their online services.  In addition, posting online may compromise the privacy of workers who may not want to reveal the nature of their work to family and friends.  Performing online may also not be a viable solution for workers with children and families at home.  A lack of consistent internet access may also hinder the ability to perform online.  Moreover, workers earn less working online and laws are not designed to protect these workers from privacy breaches and dangerous clients they could encounter as a result of working online.

UNAIDS and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects have called on countries to take action to protect the health and human rights of sex workers.  These measures should include access to national social security schemes, unemployment benefits and financial aid, providing healthcare services to migrant sex workers, appropriating emergency housing for homeless sex workers, halting prosecution and arrests for all sex work-related activities, ending the use of criminal law, promoting COVID-19 testing and providing visa extensions to migrant sex workers.

Sex workers need more allies. Global bodies such as Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation support their demands for legalization and decriminalisation.  Sex worker rights should matter to everyone who cares about gender inequality, migration, public health or poverty.  The need to protect sex workers during this pandemic is incredibly important as they are one of the most marginalised groups in society. Sex workers must be included in the decision-making process when it comes to legislation and programmes that can impact them.  They should have the right to work safely and on their terms and this includes protection during a world-wide pandemic.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Astha Madan Grover - Photo (1)Astha is a second-year law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.  She has a keen interest in public policy, gender law, and public health.

Freedom of expression and sexual orientation: Textualist Singapore vs expansionist India

by Kartikeya Jaiswal and Pranay Modi 

This article was originally posted on Rightsblog.net

Introduction

‘Freedom of expression’ is a fundamental right guaranteed  by the constitutions of several democratic countries. It is an internationally recognised ‘human right’ and finds mention in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) . But while the right exists on paper, its actual extent, in different countries, depends entirely on the interpretation accorded to the words by those jurisdictions.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are pertinent examples here – whether the freedom of expression covers them or not depends entirely on the legal interpretation of ‘expression’.  In certain countries, the constitutional interpretation of this right has enabled the legal recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity as human rights. In others, it has led to the continued criminalisation of sexuality and gender identity

Issue

Recently, the Singapore High Court, while deciding the constitutionality of Section 377A of the Penal Code – having implications on the legalisation of homosexuality – was faced with the question; does freedom of expression include sexual orientation? The court, vide Ong Min Johnson v. Attorney-Generalanswered  in the negative; and its analysis was in stark contrast to the analysis of the Supreme Court of India in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, where the question was answered in the affirmative.

 

Singapore

Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises ‘acts of gross indecency’ between men in public or private. In Johnson, the question arose:  does Article 14(1)(a) of the Singapore Constitution– which protects the freedom of expression – encompass sexual orientation as well? To answer the question, the Court applied the Tan Cheng Bock framework – a three-pronged method deployed for the interpretation of statutes.

First, the court considered the context in which ‘expression’ was used within the legal code as a whole (para 245). It determined context by noting the marginal note accompanying Article 14, which reads “Freedom of speech, assembly and association:. The absence of the term ‘expression’ from the marginal note, was interpreted as a clear indication that the expression was not a stand-alone right. ‘Expression’ must be read with ‘speech’ and must “necessarily point towards some form of verbal communication”. Thus, ‘expression’ under Article 14(1)(a) protects “freedom of speech encompassing matters of verbal communication of an idea, opinion or belief and not male homosexual acts”(para 255).

Second, the court considered the legislative purpose of enacting the term ‘expression’. It noted that when the constitution was adopted, there was no reference to a free-standing right of expression and ‘expression’ was only used in furtherance of the right to free speech (para 257).

The third prong of the test – comparing purpose with ordinary meaning – only reinforced the court’s interpretation, that ‘expression’ only includes expression in the form of speech. Thus, the court concluded that Article 14(1)(a) does not confer the “right to engage in male homosexual acts as a form of ‘expression’”.

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India

The approach adopted by Justice See Kee Oon of the Singapore High Court, towards the interpretation of Article 14(1)(a), is in stark contrast to the approach adopted by the Supreme Court of India, while interpreting Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution – which is in pari materia to Article 14(1)(a) of the Singaporean Constitution.

In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court – in a judgement which conferred legal validity to the identity of transgender individuals – had held that Article 19(1)(a) guarantees not just speech, but also thenatural rights inherent in the status of the citizens of a free country”.

This expansion of Article 19(1)(a) allowed the Supreme Court to adopt a natural rights approach in Navtej as well. The court observed that “sexual orientation is one of the many biological phenomena which is natural and inherent” and any law which discriminates on the basis of such an inherent property of identity, would violate Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

 

Analysis

Despite being common law courts, there is a fundamental difference in the way both jurisdictions conferred meaning to the term ‘expression’. These diametrically opposite conclusions are a function of the method of interpretation adopted, rather than any normative opinion on homosexuality.

In Singapore, the court adopted a textualist approach and stuck to the core meaning of ‘expression’, refusing to consider the penumbra of meanings. At the heart of the judgement is the belief that the judicial process simply does not allow for the kind of social progress sought by the petition.

The Indian Court, on the other hand, disregards the fetters of textual limitations and expands the scope of the text. It confers meanings on ‘expression’ found beyond the core and within the penumbra. This expansionist approach – dubbed ‘transformative constitutionalism’ – enables the progression of rights. It displays the willingness of the Indian court to push the envelope and take up the mantle of social progress for itself.

 

Conclusion

Although to decide whether one of these approaches is better than the other is a matter for posterity. But for now, what is clear is that the Singapore High Court is not regressive in its normative morality, but simply that it is strict in its judicial process.

Nevertheless, the implications of this judgment on Singapore’s LGBTQI community – and their human rights – cannot be ignored. While the Singapore High Court has maintained the propriety of the judicial process and the separation of powers by leaving it to the legislature to take the final decision, it has failed to give immediate relief to LGTBQI persons. The continued denial of their human rights is predicated upon the continued persistence of Singaporean peoples’ political right to a disciplined judiciary. In this deadlock, it is incumbent upon the Singaporean Parliament to step in and protect the human rights of Singapore’s LGBTQI community, in line with the international standards of the UDHR and the Yogyakarta Principles.

Even though the Singapore High Court has given adequate reasoning by deeming it fit for the legislature to scrap Section 377A; expanding the scope of ‘freedom of expression’ would have sent a strong message, both domestically and internationally, as the LGBTQI community keep on fighting for their basic human rights.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

KartikeyaKartikeya Jaiswal studied law at Jindal Global Law School in New Delhi, and graduated in August 2019.  He is now advocate practising law in new Delhi.

 

 

PranayPranay Modi studied law at Jindal Global Law School in New Delhi, and after graduating is now a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi

Spotlight on Clive Stafford Smith OBE

Part 2 of 2

Each month, the HRC Blog features a significant figure from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from the University of Essex.  This month, we feature Clive Stafford Smith OBE.  Part 1 covered questions about the death penalty and COVID19.   

 

NINTCHDBPICT000589082437Note from the Editor: This week is a particularly poignant one for Clive as it would have been the 60th birthday of Edward Earl Johnson, who was wrongfully executed in a Mississippi gas chamber in 1987 at the age of 26.   Edward’s tragic case came to the world’s attention through the documentary, Fourteen Days in May, which captured Clive’s attempts to halt the execution and followed Edward’s last few days and very final moments.  I would urge anyone interested in human rights and justice to watch this powerful documentary and support the work of Reprieve , the organisation Clive founded to give free legal support to the most vulnerable and forgotten people in this world. 

I would like to thank Clive for spending some of his precious time in answering our questions and for his inspiration to those of us joining the growing global human rights defence team.

 

About Clive

Clive Stafford SMithClive Stafford Smith is the founder of ‘Reprieve’ and a well known human rights lawyer.  He has spent his career fighting against the death penalty in America, only taking cases of those who could not afford a lawyer, assisting in the representation over 400 prisoners and preventing their execution in 98% of cases.  Clive is also known for his work in representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, successfully suing the US government to gain access to the facility, and helping to secure the release of some 80 detainees to date, with seven clients still there.  In addition to visiting and representing the detainees, Clive tracked down the families of ‘disappeared’ prisoners across the Middle East, prompting some unwelcome ‘interest’ from US allies, including the Jordanian Secret Police, who detained him in 2004.  In 2000, Clive was awarded an OBE for ‘humanitarian services’ and has won a raft of awards in the field of human rights.

 

Students’ Questions Answered

Clive was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him  some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights.  Clive answered questions on a range of topics.  In this second part, we explore the topics of Guantanamo Bay,  criminal justice reform and the decolonisation of the curriculum.  Clive also has some wise words of advice for our human rights students.

 

COUNTER-TERRORISM  & GUANTANAMO BAY

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Clive at the entrance to Guantanamo Bay

Q: What challenges does the use of new technologies in counter-terrorism measures create for human rights activists?

A: There is no such thing as a challenge, only an opportunity.  But certainly the Drone Age means that we kill people around with world with some degree of impunity.

And for those of you who have read I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, it is notable that his first law of robotics (coined in 1950, shortly after the first use of a nuclear bomb) states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Sad to say, like the Manhattan Project and nuclear weapons, the military is in charge of most AI being used in drones, and the only use is to kill people. Again, we have the world upside down.

 

Q: To what extent do you believe that removing the human element in extrajudicial executions through the use of unmanned drones in the war on terror has led to an increase in human rights violations and blow-back on western powers?

A: This is indubitably true, as it has lowered the threshold for warfare (we can kill people in Waziristan without risk of American body bags – indeed while our “drone pilots” are drinking coffee in Nevada). We have also ignored hundreds of years of the developments of the law against assassination, and are going around the world killing people.

And that is just the Americans and the British. In turn, we encourage others, like the Russians (in Salisbury) and the deranged President Duterte (in the Philippines).

 

Q: Does the Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board still exist and does it still operate?  And what are the prospects for those already cleared for release being allowed to return to their home countries during Trump’s tenure..…Abdul Latif Nasser being one.

A: The “review processes” in Gitmo have always been a sham – “kangaroo courts” in the words of UK Justice Steyn. Nobody has been cleared since Trump became president so it does not matter that the PRB still exists in theory.  Nobody is going to be released by Trump, based on his midnight tweets. It is back to the middle ages, when a king could just lock you up without trial based on his fiat.

 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Q: With the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter movement garnering an unforeseen amount of international pressure for racial justice, civil rights activists are championing for total criminal justice reform in the US.  If this were to occur, in what context would you see this happening? What would be your primary goals in the implementation of a ‘just’ criminal justice system?

A: By and large I would encourage people not to tinker with the machinery of death and incarceration. It is anathema. I would no more send someone I love to prison, no matter what they did, than I would thrash my 11 year old child. Prison solves nothing at all.

Yes, there are some dangerous people. Many of them are currently policemen with guns, but others are those who start wars, and there are people who commit serious offences like murder. But if you think you would never murder, you need to ask yourself why? Is it because you are somehow morally superior (like the Klan?) or is it because you had many benefits that others do not have?

There are other solutions to our societal problems, but for that you may have to wait for my next (thrilling) book…

 

DECOLONISING THE CURRICULUM

UDHRQ: Many people are calling for the de-colonisation of the educational curriculum in Europe and America.  Do you believe the same is necessary in the theory and practice of human rights in order to provide genuinely universal implementation?

A: It is not so much de-colonisation that we need, as de-mystification. What we are taught in schools and in life is just nonsense on many levels. People were not “men of their times” they were barbarians. As are we today in many ways. The more interesting issue is whether we cannot look at ourselves today and identify the way in which we, as a society, are just mad.  Obviously racism is mad.

I challenge everyone to come up with at least one practice that you see around you where the overwhelming majority of the world (or your country) thinks it is totally right and justified, but you think they are all a bit deranged. Racism is not good enough as there are lots of people who think that is insane. So you have to go much further afield. If you can’t think of any, then I fear you are a subject of indoctrination in the same way as the people were who burned the witches in Salem.

One example might be the idea that Britain should have closed borders and clutch close to our breasts all the benefits we have from pillaging other countries, just because we happened to get away with it and now say we are “British”. But in my world there are many examples. I sit watching the world around me with bemusement.

At a very simple level, human rights are about humans. They are not about British people or Americans.  It is telling in this regard that the US has not ratified one human rights convention that is enforceable in a US court; just as it is telling that the British think that “parliamentary supremacy” means that Priti Patel can tell us how nasty we should be to other people (rather than supremacy over a nasty executive, originally perhaps King Charles 1).

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

Campaignagainstarms tradeQ: With economic interests at the heart of international relations, what are the prospects for holding the states with the biggest pockets accountable for human rights violations?  And if existing mechanisms are not working to provide that accountability, what can we do as human rights advocates to make real change?

A: “Accountability” does not mean prosecuting people and putting them in prison. On one level, that makes us as unpleasant as them. Rather, it means bringing power to the powerless, and putting a stop sign up to abuses. That is remarkably easy, partly because you and I are not afraid of anyone, and politicians are afraid of everyone.

Power is not just about law, which is only one tool in our tool box. It is as much about the court of public opinion. So those of us who are privileged – which includes everyone who has the spare time to read me rambling on – just has to do what my mother told me to do, which is to get between the haters and the people who are being hated, and just say ‘No’.

 

FINDING NEW TACTICS THAT WORK

social mediaQ: As a Human Rights Lawyer, one needs to keep on transforming ways to keep the cause alive but sometimes bringing change is difficult.   How have the tactics changed over the years to today, when social media has become such an important tool for mobilizing causes?

A: You’d be bored to death if you did the same things all the time, but the rules actually remain the same. The most important rule is that we are Brer Rabbit and the when they misbehave the government plays Brer Fox (as do the other bad guys). That means that the government is very big and quite strong, but not terribly clever; whereas you are small, rather clever, and a teeny bit arrogant. So all you have to worry about is getting a bit ahead of yourself.

Our job is persuasion. Another flaw the liberals have is that they are too pious and take themselves too seriously.  Humour is a much more persuasive tool than piety.  And we have to remember that we are trying to persuade people who speak different languages.

There is good in everyone but you have to find it. An example would be a capital jury trial: the jurors can only get on the case if they promise that they can impose the death penalty so you are foolish if you preach to them that the death penalty is immoral. It also does not work to quote Shakespeare as I once did (“The Quality of Mercy is not Strain’d”). On the other hand, in the US the chances are they are Christian, which means that the death penalty is really about Matthew chapter 5, verse vii: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Translated to a juror, this means that if you do as the prosecutor wants and show no mercy, you get eternal damnation; if you do as I suggest and show mercy, you go to heaven. Your choice.

 

HIGHS, LOWS AND SOME WISE WORDS

Cliveypoo_opt-150x150Q: What has been your greatest achievement and your biggest failure or regret throughout your career?

A: Hard to say here. I have learned huge amounts from people I have represented, and also been able to hand back lives to a fair number of people who were being tormented by one government or another. That is cool, but I don’t think of it as an achievement, so much as a privilege.

On the other side of the ledger, notwithstanding losing six clients to the chamber (including Edward Earl Johnson – you can watch that miserable failure online.  My greatest failure by far is the fact that I advocated life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty in the 1980s at a time when life generally meant 7 to 10 years.  Jurors would vote death because they were afraid of parole and so I wrote a fairly influential article about how we should have “truth in sentencing” so that life meant life – purely to avoid the death penalty.

Taking the fact that there are now 206,000 people serving LWOP in the US, and that they each serve at least 25 extra years each, I recently calculated that my bright idea had caused perhaps a total of 1,954 MILLION days of additional prison misery for people.

I don’t beat myself up about this too much. I think it was an astoundingly stupid thing to advocate, but the best I can do is never to allow another of my clients to suffer LWOP.

 

Q: Do you have any unfulfilled burning ambitions left?

A: I am not sure I have any “ambitions” – that is an odd word.  I do have lots and lots of things I want to do. And they change every day as there are fascinating things all around. I just wish there were 72 hours in the day.

 

Q: What advice do you have for any students embarking on a career in human rights?

A: I am afraid I have a full lecture (rant!) on this, and we will have to share it sometime. But in a word, never accept the foolish rules society (and your teachers!) foist upon you.  Do not ask yourself, for one thing, how you can ‘get’ a job – rather, think how you can create the job you want to do.  I have never had a real job in my life and I do not plan to have one. Instead, I have always created the job I want, and raised the money to fund it.  When you think how much time you waste on other things like Latin and Maths (I have never found a Roman to talk to, and while I did Further Maths A level it has no relevance to my life), it is astounding that we spend so little time working on creating a job we’d like to do.