UN Human Rights Committee Questions U.S.’s Criminalization of Sex Workers as Method to Fight Trafficking

Yesterday the United Nations Human Rights Committee released its report on U.S. compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Advocates for sex worker rights from BPPP and SWOP-Phoenix were present during the Committee’s review of the U.S. government, and filed a shadow report with the Committee on rights abuses against people involved in commercial sex. The Committee is comprised of eighteen independent human rights experts who monitor states’ compliance with the ICCPR.  The United States ratified the ICCPR in 1992.

The “Concluding Observations” from the Committee included important points on racial profiling, police abuse, and immigrants’ rights. The Committee also called on the U.S. to re-align its anti-human trafficking efforts with human rights norms, which reject criminalizing people who are trafficked. Importantly, the Committee’s report placed the problem of forced labor within a larger framework of economics and immigration policies, and noted its concern “about the insufficient identification and investigation of cases of trafficking for labor purposes.”

Earlier in March, in Geneva, Human Rights Committee members questioned the U.S. Justice Department’s position that criminalizing sex workers (by calling for jail time for sex workers) is a sound way to combat human trafficking, noting the harm criminalization causes. During the hearing, Roy L. Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division made clear that criminalization of sex workers is part of the administration’s approach to trafficking. Addressing advocates’ questions on the issue, Mr. Austin stated, “This issue is incredibly challenging, because to get those who exploit women, the only tool is to get those women to testify [by arresting them]. [We] sees those women as victims.

Human Rights Committee Chair Sir Nigel Rodley specifically asked how the government could expect people victimized and targeted by police and prosecutors to help provide evidence on traffickers. “[Mr. Austin] talked about the policy being victim-centered and in relation to sex trade workers, clearly the victims are the sex trade workers. If as I understood the policy is to prosecute them for doing something illegal, and I hope I’ve understood wrongly, then isn’t that going to make it particularly difficult to get the necessary evidence in order to reach effective prosecutions of traffickers, not to mention the double victimization?” he asked.

Advocates from SWOP-Phoenix and BPPP educated Committee members prior to the hearing about ways that U.S. policing practices and anti-trafficking initiatives violate the civil and human rights of arrestees. Specifically, advocates described how Project ROSE, a Phoenix-based ostensible anti-trafficking initiative actually results in mass arrest and imprisonment of people police suspect to be doing sex work, and violates the due process rights of arrestees in the process.

Advocates noted how criminalization harms sex workers, people profiled as sex workers, and people who are trafficked. They also spoke about how there is forced labor in an array of industries, including farm work, domestic work and factory work, but there is no other arena aside from sex work where the approach is to criminalize people who may be trafficked in order to prosecute human traffickers.

During a civil society briefing with the U.S. government delegation attending the review in Geneva, advocates pointed out to the Justice Department official that places like Phoenix, AZ impose mandatory minimum sentences for criminal convictions for sex work, meaning arrestees are imprisoned in Arizona’s notorious detention facilities. In 2009, Arizona’s Department of Corrections killed Marcia Powell, who was sentenced to a 27-month prison term for sex work, by confining her in a metal cage in the desert with no water. As in some other states, escalating penalties in Arizona for additional sex work convictions eventually lead to an automatic felony, depriving arrestees of voting rights and other civil and human rights.

In a statement before the Human Rights Committee, SWOP-Phoenix member Jaclyn  Moskal Dairman asked that the Committee, “call on the US to ensure that sex workers and people profiled as such are afforded their constitutional rights when arrested under ostensible ‘anti-trafficking’ initiatives, and call on the government to monitor anti-trafficking funds to ensure they are not being used to violate civil rights.

UN Update: SWOP-Phoenix member testifies before UN Human Rights Committee

As part of their work to raise the issue of abusive and discriminatory policing practices in the U.S., advocates BPPP and SWOP-PHX sought to speak before the UN Human Rights Committee during the Committee’s review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Here is video of SWOP-PHX member giving her testimony–the text is below.


I’m Jaclyn Moskal Dairman with (SWOP)–the Sex Worker Outreach Project in Phoenix Arizona. I am here to speak about criminalization of sex workers, including under ostensible anti trafficking initiatives that primarily target people in poverty and disproportionately affect people of color. These are the people SWOP reaches out to. As a single mother, college student, and someone who grew up in poverty and homelessness I know what criminalization does to people in poverty. Criminalization is disastrous, particularly in states like Arizona, which has mandatory minimums and felony sentences for sex work. In 2009, a woman with a psychiatric disability sentenced to 27 months for prostitution, was killed by Arizona Department of Corrections when they left her in a cage in the desert with no water.

Recently, Monica Jones, a human rights defender with SWOP, was profiled and wrongfully arrested by Phoenix police because she is a transgender woman of color. She was arrested as part of an initiative called “Project ROSE,” and charged under a vague, overbroad anti-prostitution statute. While dubbed an “anti-trafficking initiative” Project ROSE actually targets people police believe are sex workers. To be clear: Project ROSE violates arrestee’s due process rights. Arrestees are denied council, even when they request a lawyer, and are made to cooperate in a police interview to potentially receive diversion, with no lawyer present. The interview is used to file charges against them if they don’t meet the diversion requirements, which most don’t, because they are too difficult for people in poverty to meet.

Monica Jones goes to trial this Friday. Since pleading not guilty, police have stopped her without cause, harassed and verbally abused her four times. If found guilty, as a trans woman, she will be housed in the men’s jail where she will face violence. Please call on the US to ensure that sex workers and people profiled as such are afforded their constitutional rights when arrested under ostensible “anti-trafficking” initiatives, and call on the government to monitor anti-trafficking funds to ensure they are not being used to violate civil rights. Thank you.

As Monica Jones prepares to go to trial, her story is being told not only at the UN but by media throughout the U.S.:

Trying to “Rescue” Sex Workers By Arresting Them is a Bad Idea

Fighting Back: Monica Jones Battles Phoenix’s Project ROSE

Sex Work Wars: Project ROSE, Monica Jones and the Fight for Human Rights

UN Update: Stop Arresting Sex Workers under the guise of ending trafficking



On Monday, March 10th, the US Human Rights Network Working Group, a national network that includes BPPP and SWOP-Phoenix, delivered a statement to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. The statement called for the US to end criminalizing approaches to sex work and trafficking in the US. Specifically the groups requested that the US Justice Department to remove criminalization of sex work from current Model State Criminal Provisions that were ostensibly designed to stop trafficking, but that call for arrest and jail sentences for people doing sex work. Beginning Thursday, the Committee will review the U.S.’s adherence to its human rights obligations under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. SWOP-PHX and BPPP submitted a joint report to the Committee showing how the U.S. violates civil rights of sex workers and people profiled by police as sex work, under anti-sex work initiatives.

Phoenix calling the United Nations: new ICCPR report

In late December 2013 the Best Practices Policy Project worked with SWOP-PHX to send a report to the Human Rights Committee for consideration during the review of how the United States has fared in meeting its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the “ICCPR”). The ICCPR is a key human rights treaty that protects amongst other things equality before the law, the rights of minorities, gender equality, freedom of speech, freedom from torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention, and the right to a fair trial.

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