The 2020 US election, Prostitution Laws & Human Trafficking

In many ways, Senator Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his Vice President is historic: She is the first woman of colour on a major party ticket, as well as the first female Vice-Presidential Democratic pick in more than three decades. 

However, many on the left were not overly pleased with the decision, critical of Harris’s  regressive record when she was District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California. Among these critics were sex workers’ rights advocates, who have been vocal about Harris’s historically aggressive approach to policing the community and her perceived backflips on the decriminalisation of prostitution. 

The legal status of sex work is a domestic factor which can impact upon the incidence of sex trafficking. Under the Trump administration prostitution has remained illegal in all states (with the exception of Nevada). Alternatively, much of Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand have opted to decriminalise or legalise sex work. Eight countries have also adopted the ‘Nordic Model’ where the buying of sex is criminalised, not the seller. 

Senator Harris recently commented that a Biden Administration would be in favour of a national decriminalisation agenda. Would this legislative change work in favour of America’s fight against human trafficking or against it?

Regardless of the 2020 outcome, the current debate on how to best regulate prostitution has divided America. The core legal approaches are as follows:

Prohibition

Prohibition aims to eradicate the market for paid sex, undercutting the sex trafficking business model, by targeting both supply and demand. In practice, this approach is problematic. In the United States, law enforcement overwhelmingly targets the sellers rather than buyers of sex. Annually 70,000-80,000 people are arrested for prostitution and estimates suggest that 70% of those arrested are female prostitutes and madams, 20% are male prostitutes and pimps, while only 10% are buyers. This approach carries an unfair gender bias against females and discourages victims of sex trafficking from coming forward to authorities due to fears that they may be punished. Thus, the sex industry is driven underground making it difficult for the legal system to deliver justice to victims.

Legalisation 

Through legalisation, states opt not deter people from selling or buying sex. Proponents of this approach argue that the criminalisation of prostitution makes trafficking more attractive. They argue that permitting prostitution reduces the prevalence of sex trafficking by allowing sex businesses to recruit local women who freely choose prostitution as their occupation There is insufficient evidence to support such claims. Research suggests that rates of sex trafficking remain high in places where prostitution is legal. European adopters of the legalisation approach, such as the Netherlands and Germany, have ‘the highest numbers of trafficked women in Europe.’

Critics argue that legalisation increases the size of the sex market, encouraging traffickers to exploit women and girls in greater numbers to meet increased demand. Evaluations have also found that legalised prostitution allows traffickers to hide victims in plain sight as consenting sex workers. The Chief of the German organised crime fighting unit in Stuttgart claimed that, since legalisation, his unit was fighting organised crime with ‘one hand tied behind their back’ as legal brothels provide ‘the perfect place to launder the proceeds of other organised crime.’

Strongly supporting the experiences of the Netherlands and Germany, a 2010 quantitative analysis reported that ‘sex trafficking is most prevalent in countries where prostitution is legalised.’ A 2012 study also overwhelmingly supported these findings. Researchers investigated the effect of legalised prostitution on human trafficking inflows from 150 countries and found that on average ‘those with legalised prostitution reported a greater incidence of human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited.’ The study also reviewed the longitudinal effects of legalising and criminalising prostitution and found that the criminalisation of prostitution in Sweden resulted in the shrinking of the prostitution market and the decline of human trafficking inflows while the inverse was true in Germany.

Nordic Model 

The Nordic model, also known as the Demand model, criminalises the buyers of sex, but not sellers. This approach has grown in popularity as it focuses on shrinking the market for prostitution in order to reduce demand for trafficked women. This approach assumes that sex trafficking is lucrative due to the economic principles of supply and demand. ‘Traffickers choose to trade in humans due to the low start-up costs, minimal risks, high profits, and large demand.’

The Swedish law aims to combat human trafficking by acknowledging the connection between prostitution and trafficking. Approximately 400- 600 people are trafficked into Sweden each year. Since Sweden’s adoption of the Nordic model, this number has remained constant, with no significant increase in the number of recorded victims. Two years following the passage of the law, a Swedish taskforce reported a 50% decrease in the number of women prostituting and a 75% decrease in the number of men who bought sex. Thus, while the number of people trafficked into Sweden is believed to have remained level, there have been reported decreases in the number of people selling and buying sex which has reduced the attractiveness of the Swedish sex market for human traffickers. Critics claim that since the Swedish law passed, prostitution has not decreased, but rather been forced underground. While it is difficult to assess these arguments empirically, Sweden is no longer an attractive market within Europe for human traffickers. Swedish police have confirmed this view that the Nordic model has resulted in deterring traffickers from Sweden and pushed them into other countries.

The normative objectives and results of the Nordic model also cannot be underestimated. When Sweden introduced the legislation, it had merely 30% community support. Today the figure is close to 80%. The legislation has had the effect of changing Swedish culture. It is no longer socially acceptable to pay a woman for sex. This, alongside harsher penalties for buyers, has led to Sweden having a much smaller human-trafficking problem compared to other European nations. 

Recommendation

The fight against global sex trafficking is counterproductive if countries have conflicting approaches to regulating domestic prostitution. Having reviewed the various legislative approaches, it is evident that targeting demand is an integral part of any legal solution. Though imperfect, the Nordic model has a proven track record of reducing the demand for prostitution which minimises the incentives for human traffickers to conduct their businesses. 

According to the most recent polling, the Biden Harris ticket will be victorious in November. As the decriminalisation model has proven unsuccessful in reducing human trafficking, Biden and Harris should re-calibrate their official stance on regulation to reflect the Nordic Model. This will shrink the demand for prostitution in the US, thus making the American sex market less attractive to human traffickers. 

How Australia should approach China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang

Australia has traditionally held the conventional wisdom that as China grew economically, it would establish a middle class that would pressure the government to recognise human rights. Under the presidency of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has instead shown that economic growth can reinforce a dictatorship. 

The religious and ethnic persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province is of growing concern to the Australian government. The United Nations estimates that at least one million Turkic Muslims are being detained in internment camps and forced to undergo ideological re-education. Uyghurs are currently working within factories of well-known multinational companies such as Apple, BMW, Volkswagen and Nike in conditions which strongly suggest forced labour.

Amnesty International alongside members of the international community have criticised the CCP over its treatment of the Uyghur people. President Xi, has been unmoved by this mounting  pressure, recently remarking that the Chinese approach to its internal affairs was “completely correct” and remained a “major task for the entire party and nation.”

Amnesty recognises that Australia is deeply committed to human rights. Australia recently passed its Modern Slavery Act (2019) to combat violations of human freedom in global supply chains. Australia has also utilised its status as a constructive middle power to promote human rights through forums such as the UN Human Rights Council (2018-2020) and the ‘Liechtenstein initiative.’

Australia’s current approach towards China’s abuses prioritises soft diplomacy and is premised in the belief that China will eventually progress to respect the human rights of its citizens. Amnesty stresses that this approach of quiet diplomacy has proven to be ineffective. Therefore, Australia must immediately reform its foreign policy approach towards the CCP. If left unchecked, the threat posed by China’s human rights violations undermines Australia’s  objectives to promote human rights and makes a mockery of the international human rights framework. 

Recommendations: 

1.  Australia should implement a preferential refugee program to provide Uighur Muslims with priority protection and resettlement in Australia; 

2. Australia should follow the United States in screening and banning certain exports believed to have been produced by forced Uyghur labour;

3. Australian state visits to China should be conditioned on human rights progress and the granting of access for UN investigators to independently assess conditions in Xinjiang. 

Human Rights Council

Action on China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims presents a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate international leadership through human rights advocacy. China has continued to manipulate the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by proposing resolutions which undermine the international system. In 2018, China proposed a UNHRC resolution calling on states to ‘promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.’ The resolution implied that human rights could be negotiated and that economic development should take precedence over individual human rights. This stance weakens the international human rights framework by normalising the idea that human rights are voluntary.

While Australia and other countries have leveraged international forums to criticise the CCP’s human rights abuses, such motions have been completely ignored by China. In 2019, Australia partnered with 21 other UNHCR countries in writing a letter to the CCP calling for an end to the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims. China retaliated by suspending its human rights partnership with Australia.

2020 marks Australia’s final year on the UNHRC. Though Australia’s lobbying has not resulted in a marked improvement to human rights in China, Australia must take advantage of its final months on the Council. Australia could draw attention to its human rights initiatives on the Council by establishing a preferential refugee program to provide Uyghurs with priority protection in Australia. This would enable Uyghurs willing and able to escape from persecution to rebuild their lives. It is currently estimated that there 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang. While Australia is unable to facilitate what will likely be a mass influx of people, Australia could commit to a refugee quota and encourage its partners to help shoulder the burden. Though this policy will not address the root causes of the human rights abuses in China, it will send a clear message to the CCP that its behaviour is unacceptable, while providing safety and security to survivors. 

International Leadership

Australia has an opportunity to enhance its status as a regional and world leader in human rights by renouncing China’s abuses. While Foreign Affairs Minister Payne has previously criticised China for its repressive policies against the Uyghurs, Australia can and must do more.  

State visits are a foundation of international diplomacy, and the CCP utilises photos opportunities  from foreign visits to fuel propaganda. In November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron visited China and made no public mention of human rights concerns. Quiet diplomacy is ineffective in pressuring the Chinese government to modify its behaviour. Most importantly, such visits are disheartening to Chinese citizens, the ultimate agents of change. Australia can set a better diplomatic example by refusing to coordinate state visits to China so long as conditions remain unchanged. The Australian government can also utilise its normative influence to encourage allies to do the same. By publicly calling out Beijing for its human rights violations, this will send a clear message to the CCP while emboldening victims to enact change. 

Australia is also reticent of China’s growing influence in the Indo Pacific region. In response, DFAT is interested in identifying new ways to promote Australia as a partner of choice for development and trade in the region. Promoting a compelling, human-rights respecting alternative to China will enable Australia to differentiate itself from the CCP and gain greater support from its regional partners. 

Trade Considerations 

China and Australia have a strong bilateral trade relationship which should be a key consideration when taking any political action against China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner for both imports and exports, currently accounting for 27.4% of Australia’s total world trade.  Noting that China is such a significant trading partner, Australia finds it challenging to implement trade sanctions as this may disrupt the country’s economic prosperity. 

Trade has been used by the United States government as an important lever to sanction Chinese imports from Xinjiang. The U.S. now screens products that have originated from Xinjiang to detect goods which are potentially linked to state-sponsored forced labour. In September 2020, the U.S. implemented an executive order blocking Chinese imports such as cotton, garments, hair products and electronics from the region. Amnesty International recommends Australia explore a similar policy of screening imports in order to deter modern slavery.

So far, Australia has been unwilling to take action against China’s repression. This was evident in 2019, when Foreign Minister Payne described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as ‘disturbing,’ but simultaneously refused to implement sanctions against China. Australia’s inability to turn rhetoric into action against China demonstrates a complacency that goes against Australia’s interests and values. 

Adopting a tough stance on the CCP poses significant risks to Australian trade. However, if Australia can cooperate with other countries to address China’s blatant disregard for human rights, the international balance of power will shift. Though China can endure unilateral sanctions from Australia, its economy cannot take on the entire world.

Conclusion

Adopting these recommendations will enable Australia to promote its international leadership on human rights and build credibility within the Indo-Pacific region. Though unilateral actions by Australia will not enact instant change in China’s behavior, its example will encourage others to follow suit. This will heighten the financial and political costs of China’s oppression. Amnesty International hopes that this pressure will eventually result in an end to China’s systemic religious and ethnic abuse of Uyghur Muslims. 


Who is the partner of choice for developing states?

The European Union have provided development and trading partnerships with nations from every corner of the globe. In doing so, the EU promotes democracy and human rights by attaching social provisions and human rights conditions to their agreements. For example, EU development partnerships in the Indo-Pacific or Central Africa will be subject to clauses regarding the internal affairs of a country.

Comparatively, China’s programs and partnerships do not bind political clauses to agreements. China promotes norms of ‘unconditionally’ and ‘win-win’ economic outcomes and will turn a blind eye to the internal affairs of the countries it partners with.  This approach allows China to be increasingly viewed as the development partner of choice as they are willing to meet the immediate economic needs of states.      

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 further elevated the status of China’s economic model.  Responding to the crisis, China unleashed substantial stimulus packages through the state-controlled financial sector and aided regional neighbours. China’s trade surpluses and currency manipulation have also led it to accumulate the world’s largest foreign currency reserves, thus becoming a central part of the international political economy. China’s performance, when juxtaposed with Europe’s response which was largely confined to bailing out poorly regulated banks, positions China strongly to extend its normative power throughout the developing world.            

The European Union’s strict criterion for its membership and programs rests on principles of democracy and the rule of law. While developing countries have traditionally been willing to make concessions in their internal affairs in return for economic benefit, China is providing ‘no strings attached’ partnerships and an economic model that outperforms that of the EU. Therefore, the EU’s normative influence to promote democracy throughout the world is waning significantly.   

To maintain a normative presence which continues to push developing nations closer towards democracy and the recognition of human rights, the EU must do more to acknowledge the role of China by allowing reform in areas of traditional EU development initiatives. Greater flexibility and inclusion in EU programs will enable a balance to be struck between economic and social development. This will also reduce the appeal of China’s development program which often leaves countries devastated by national debt and forced to maintain deferential stances towards the grand strategy of the CCP.