Think Again

Think Again: Climate Treaties

Why the glacial pace of climate diplomacy isn't ruining the planet.

"An Ironclad Treaty Is the Only Way to Save the Planet."


Time is running short for the international community to tackle climate change.

Pressure to act comes from rising temperatures and sea levels, superstorms, brutal droughts, and diminishing food crops. It also comes from fears that these problems are going to get worse. Modern economies have already boosted the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. If the world stays on its current course, CO2 levels could double by century's end, potentially raising global temperatures several more degrees. (The last time the planet's CO2 levels were so high was 15 million years ago, when temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today.)

Another source of pressure, however, is self-imposed. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the next global climate treaty -- to be negotiated among some 200 countries, with the central goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions -- should be enacted in 2015, to replace the now-outmoded 1997 Kyoto Protocol. (Once passed by state parties, the new treaty would actually go into effect in 2020.)

The race against both nature and the diplomatic clock is stressful. But in the rush to do something, the international community -- most notably, and ironically, those individuals and organizations most fervent about combating global warming -- is often doing the wrong thing. It has become fixated on the notion of consensus codified in international law.

The U.N. process for climate diplomacy has been in place for more than two decades, punctuated since 1995 by annual meetings at which countries assess global progress in protecting the environment and negotiate treaties and other agreements to keep the ball rolling. Kyoto was finalized at the third such conference. A milestone, it established targets for country-based emissions cuts. Its signal failure, however, was leaving the world's three largest emitters of greenhouse gases unconstrained, two of them by design. Kyoto gave developing countries, including China and India, a blanket exemption from cutting emissions. Meanwhile, the United States bristled at its obligations -- particularly in light of the free pass given to China and India -- and refused to ratify the treaty.

Still, Kyoto was lauded by many because it was a legally binding accord, a high bar to clear in international diplomacy. The agreement's provisions were compulsory for countries that ratified it; violating them would invite a stigma -- a reputation for weaseling out of promises deemed essential to saving the planet.

Today, the principle of "if you sign it, you stick to it" continues to guide a lot of conventional thinking about climate diplomacy, particularly among the political left and international NGOs, which have been driving forces of U.N. climate negotiations, and among leaders of developing countries that are not yet major polluters but are profoundly affected by global warming. For instance, in the lead-up to the last annual U.N. climate conference -- held in Warsaw, Poland, in November 2013 -- Oxfam International's executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said the world should not accept a successor agreement to Kyoto that has anything less than the force of international law: "Of course not.… If it's not legally binding, then what is it?" Ultimately, Byanyima and other civil society leaders walked out of the conference to protest what they viewed as a failure to take steps toward a new, ironclad treaty.

The frustration in Warsaw showed an ongoing failure among many staunch advocates of climate diplomacy to learn the key lesson of Kyoto: Legal force is the wrong litmus test for judging an international framework. Idealized multilateralism has become a trap. It only leads to countries agreeing to the lowest common denominator -- or balking altogether.

Evidence shows that a drive for the tightest possible treaty obligations has the perverse effect of provoking resistance. In a seminal 2011 study of climate diplomacy, David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, concluded, "The very attributes that made targets and timetables so attractive to environmentalists -- that they set clear, binding goals without much attention to cost -- made the Kyoto treaty brittle because countries that discovered they could not honor their commitments had few options but to exit."

This argument may sound like one made by many political conservatives, who opposed Kyoto and have long been wary of treaties in general. But the point is not that international efforts are useless. It is that global agreements are most useful when they include a healthy measure of realism in the demands that they make of countries. Instead of insisting on a binding agreement, diplomats must identify what governments and other actors, like the private sector, are willing to do to combat global warming and develop mechanisms to choreograph, incentivize, and monitor them as they do it. Otherwise, U.N. talks will remain a dialogue of the deaf, as the Earth keeps cooking.

"The Biggest Problem Is That Leaders Lack the Political Will to Craft a Treaty."


To explain multilateralism's recent failures, from the Kyoto Protocol to the Warsaw conference, its most fervent advocates often take aim at the same purported stumbling block: the spinelessness of politicians. Fainthearted presidents and prime ministers shy away from commitments to protect the planet because it is more politically expedient to focus on economic growth, no matter the environmental consequences.

Thanks to this conventional wisdom, "political will" has become a loaded term. If a leader doesn't sign on to a tough, legally binding treaty, he or she must be morally bankrupt. Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland who now runs a foundation dedicated to climate change issues, has called the "legal character" of climate agreements "an expression of or an extension of political will." Meanwhile, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, has written that he hopes governments will "find the political will to act beyond short-sighted electoral cycles and the corrupting influence of some business elites."

The fallacy of the political will argument, however, is that it assumes everyone already agrees on the steps necessary to address climate change and that the only remaining task is follow-through. It is true that the weight of scientific evidence tells us humanity can only spew so many more gigatons of CO2 into the air before subjecting the planet and its inhabitants to dire consequences. But the only guidance this gives policymakers is that they must transition to low-carbon economies, stat. It does not tell them how they should do this or how they can do it most efficiently, with the least cost incurred. As a result, advocates of strict climate treaties hammer home the imperative for environmental action without providing for discussion about how countries can actually transform their economies in practice.

Consider environmental author and activist Bill McKibben's comments in early 2013 praising Germany for using more renewable energy: "There were days last summer when Germany generated more than half the power it used from solar panels within its borders. What does that tell you about the relative role of technological prowess and political will in solving this?"

Unfortunately, it tells us very little. It doesn't tell us what it would take to stretch the reliance on solar energy beyond some sunny German days or the subsidy levels required to make solar power a more widely used energy source. It also tells us nothing about how we could translate Germany's accomplishments to countries with very different political and economic circumstances. And it doesn't explain what would induce those diverse countries to accept a multilateral arrangement boosting the global use of renewable energy. All McKibben's factoid tells us is that the myth of political will is quite powerful.

Certainly, economic imperatives should not override environmental ones. Yet the standard for climate diplomacy should not be broad appeals for boldness that ask policymakers to deny trade-offs rather than wrestle with them -- particularly in the countries that the world needs most in the fight against global warming.

"China and India Are Ruining Our Chances to Avert Global Catastrophe."


Last fall, after the Warsaw meeting, many experts and pundits were quick to place blame for the gathering's tumult. "The India Problem: Why is it thwarting every international climate agreement?" a headline on Slate demanded. Other observers scorned India and China for saying they would not make "commitments" to greenhouse gas cuts in the 2015 climate agreement. (The meeting's attendees ultimately settled on the word "contributions.")

These complaints, however, are increasingly out of date.

It's true that, throughout most of the 2000s, China and India clung to the exemption that the Kyoto Protocol had granted them, arguing that the industrialized world had caused global warming and that developing countries shouldn't be deprived of their own chance to prosper. This has induced great anxiety because, since 2005, China's annual share of CO2 emissions has grown from around 16 percent to more than 25 percent, while India has emerged as the world's third-largest carbon emitter. In short, without China and India, progress on climate change will be virtually impossible.

By 2010, however, Beijing and New Delhi had begun to change their stance. A desire to save face diplomatically, combined with increasing pollution at home and domestic need for energy efficiency, have made China and India more willing to cut emissions than ever before.

Chinese leaders in particular are eager to recast their country as an environmental paragon, rather than a pariah. Some analysts attribute this shift to China's aspirations to global prominence. Playing off the popular idea of the "Chinese century," Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, has said, "If it's your century, you don't obstruct -- you lead." Recently, China has taken significant steps forward with green energy, mimicking many of the regulations and mandates that have helped the United States achieve environmental progress. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric power now provide one-quarter of China's electricity-generating capacity. More energy is being added to China's grid each year from clean sources than from fossil fuels. And in a show of its willingness to step up to the diplomatic plate, China signed an accord with the United States in 2013 that scales down emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, which are so-called super-greenhouse gases.

Yet these changes have not substantially bent the curve of China's total emissions. According to Chris Nielsen and Mun Ho of Harvard University's China Project, this is largely because the country's rapid economic growth makes the tools that have slowed emissions in other economies less effective in China: "[T]he unprecedented pace of China's economic transformation makes improving China's air quality a moving target." Ultimately, Nielsen and Ho argue, the only way for China to rein in emissions will be to attach a price to carbon, through either a tax or a cap-and-trade system. As if on cue, China is now setting up municipal and provincial markets in which polluters can trade emissions credits, with the goal of creating a national market by 2016.

The point here is that the leaders of countries with rapidly developing economies cannot predict environmental payoffs with any real confidence. Tools that work well for others may not for them. That's why China and India are hesitant to sign legally binding treaties, which would put them on the hook to hit targets that could prove much harder to reach than anticipated. They don't want to undertake costly reforms that might not have the predicted benefits, and they do not want to risk the hefty criticism that failure to abide by a treaty would surely bring.

Chinese and Indian leaders realize they'll be judged by their contributions to a cleaner environment, and they embrace the challenge. (Recently in India, more than 20 major industry players launched an initiative to cut emissions.) And they are apt to be less guarded on the international stage if a new climate agreement functions as a measuring stick, not a bludgeon -- much like the 2009 Copenhagen accord has done.

"But Copenhagen Was a Catastrophe."


In December 2009, the U.N.'s annual climate conference, hosted in Copenhagen, produced an agreement that is still roundly condemned by environmentalists, the leaders of developing countries, and political liberals alike. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement let countries voluntarily set their own targets for emissions cuts over 10 years. "The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight," the executive director of Greenpeace U.K. declared when the deal was reached. Lumumba Di-Aping, the chief negotiator for a group of developing countries known as the G-77, which had wanted major polluters like the United States to take greater responsibility for global warming, said the agreement had "the lowest level of ambition you can imagine."

In reality, however, the conference wasn't a fiasco. It offered the basis for a promising, more flexible regime for climate action that could be a model for the 2015 agreement.

The Copenhagen agreement had a number of advantages. It didn't have to be ratified by governments, which can delay implementation by years. Moreover, in an important new benchmark for climate negotiations, the agreement set the goal of preventing a global average temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, with all countries' emission cuts to be gauged against that objective. This provision went to the heart of climate diplomacy's collective-action problem: Apportioning responsibility for cutting emissions among countries is always tricky, but the 2-degree target creates a shared definition of success.

Most importantly, however, the shift to voluntary pledges showed the first glimmers of lessons learned from the most common mistakes of climate negotiations. In the U.N. process, countries usually operate by consensus: They must all agree on each other's respective climate goals, a surefire recipe for dysfunction. (In 2010, the chair of annual climate talks refused to let a single delegation -- Bolivia -- block consensus, which counts as a daring move at U.N. conferences.)

Under Copenhagen, by contrast, countries can pledge to do their share while remaining within their comfort zones as dictated by circumstances back home. For instance, faced with economic imperatives to continue delivering high growth, China and India pledged at Copenhagen to reach targets pegged relative to carbon intensity (emissions per unit of economic output) rather than absolute levels of greenhouse gases. This was as far as they were willing to go -- but it was further than they'd ever gone before.

Admittedly, the Copenhagen conference wasn't perfect. The deal was struck on the conference's tail end, after U.S. President Barack Obama barged in on a meeting already under way among the leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Many of the other delegates registered outrage that the five leaders had negotiated a deal in private by having the conference merely "take note" of the accord.

But the following year's U.N. conference fleshed out the Copenhagen framework, and it has since gained enough legitimacy that 114 countries have agreed to the accord and another 27 have expressed their intention to agree. Taken together, this includes the world's 17 largest emitters, responsible for 80 percent of carbon-based pollution.

The Copenhagen accord will expire as the Kyoto successor agreement takes effect in 2020. But it shouldn't be viewed as just a stopgap. In giving governments more flexibility, Copenhagen offers the chance to build more confidence -- and ambition -- where historically there has only been uncertainty and rancor. Any future climate agreement should do the same.

"Countries Will Never Keep Mere Promises to Cut Emissions."


The most obvious criticism of Copenhagen's system, of course, is that, while it is nice for countries to set voluntary goals, they will never meet them unless they are legally compelled to do so. That is why, just after the Copenhagen deal was reached, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hastily said, "I know what we really need is a legally binding treaty as quickly as possible."

To date, there has been progress on meeting targets set under Copenhagen. The United States and the European Union, for instance, are all within reach of meeting their 10-year goals, perhaps even ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, China's pledge to cut carbon intensity, based on 2005 levels, has become the framework for the country's new emissions-trading markets.

But the most important reason to have confidence in the Copenhagen deal lies in its provisions for measurement, reporting, and verification. If done right, these so-called MRV mechanisms will alert the world as to how countries are (or are not) reducing greenhouse gases, while also pushing states to keep pace toward pledged cuts.

MRVs rely on peer pressure. Countries report to and monitor one another, tracking and urging progress. This kind of system has already proved effective in a variety of international policy areas. For instance, the Mutual Assessment Process of the G-20 and International Monetary Fund brings together the major economic powers to discuss whether their respective policies are helping to maximize global economic growth or are instead widening imbalances between export- and consumer-based economies. The process is fairly new, but already, it is widely credited with prodding China -- long reluctant to discuss these issues in multilateral forums (sound familiar?) -- to let its currency appreciate and to make boosting domestic consumption a main plank of its five-year (2011-2015) plan.

MRVs have also proved valuable in narrower climate regimes, such as the European Union's cap-and-trade mechanism. As a 2012 Environmental Defense Fund report explained, "[B]ecause EU governments based the system's initial caps and emissions allowance allocation on estimates of regulated entities' emissions … governments issued too many emissions allowances ('over-allocation'). Now, however, caps are established on the basis of measured and verified past emissions and best-practices benchmarks, so over-allocation is less of a problem." In other words, MRVs have helped the European Union tighten market standards, correcting an earlier miscalculation and actually heightening the system's ambition.

The Copenhagen agreement enhanced the utility of global, climate-related MRVs by requiring greater transparency from developing countries. Under Kyoto, these countries were only required to provide a summary of their emissions for two years: a choice of either 1990 or 1994, and 2000. Copenhagen, by contrast, committed developing countries to report on their emissions biennially -- the first reports are due in December -- narrowing the gap with the requirement for annual reports that Kyoto imposed on developed countries.

Copenhagen's MRVs are not yet as strong as they could be. For instance, they should require annual reports from all countries, no matter their stages of development. These reports should also include a breakdown of information according to economic subsectors and different greenhouse gases, along with supporting details about data-collection methods. In addition, the process of reviewing reports needs to be fleshed out, taking cues from other strong MRVs that already exist, and wealthier countries should help underwrite the cost to developing countries of preparing comprehensive reports.

The good news is that, given the ongoing nature of U.N. climate diplomacy, it's still possible to strengthen Copenhagen's MRVs. Important new principles and guidelines for peer review have been established in negotiations since 2009, and those involved in climate diplomacy should now buckle down to finish the job. Robust MRVs would guarantee that the world makes the most of the next few years and draws on that experience to chart a new phase of climate action anchored in a 2015 agreement.

"Forget Treaties. Solutions Will Come From the Bottom Up."


Some critics of the U.N. process, hailing from conservative political ranks, the private sector, and other areas, have lost all patience and think that a top-down process, particularly one negotiated in an international forum, is the wrong way to go. They point out that, while national leaders negotiated the Copenhagen deal, actual progress toward its goals is being cobbled together by actors at lower levels -- in cities, states, markets, and industries. They are choosing which energy will generate electricity, honing farming practices, improving industrial efficiency, and the like.

Indeed, some policymakers and climate analysts point to the influence of local authorities as a game-changer for climate action. After all, Chinese cities and provinces have begun building emissions-trading markets, and California has passed a law establishing one of the most robust such markets in the world. Meanwhile, leaders of the world's megacities have banded together to cut emissions in what's known as the C40 group, established in 2005. As C40 chair and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes has put it, "C40's networks and efforts on measurement and reporting are accelerating city-led action at a transformative scale around the world."

Given this sort of local progress, it is certainly worth asking whether diplomats and national policymakers should just get out of the way. Maybe a thoroughly bottom-up approach would be better for the planet than an international climate regime, no matter how flexible. David Hodgkinson, a law professor and executive director of the nonprofit EcoCarbon, which focuses on market solutions for reducing emissions, has argued that such an approach has "more substance" and "probably holds out more hope than a top-down UN deal."

Ultimately, however, this view is misguided. There is no substitute for high-level diplomacy in getting everyone to do their utmost and in keeping track of their efforts. In particular, as Copenhagen reminded the world, the value of the agenda setting, peer pressure, and leverage unique to international diplomacy shouldn't be overlooked. Moreover, we've seen in other policy spheres how the international community can first establish fundamental principles, which then sharpen over time with the aid of global coordinating bodies and more localized initiatives. For instance, the nonbinding 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights established a framework for a host of subsequent international treaties, U.N. agencies, regional charters and courts, national policies, and, more recently, corporate responsibility efforts.

Practically speaking, it would also be shortsighted to rely on an assortment of subnational actors to tackle a global problem like climate change. Determining how the work of these actors intersects, what it adds up to, and who monitors that sum are critical matters best managed from the top-down. As the goal of preventing a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius reminds us, it is the aggregate of countries' reduced emissions that will be the ultimate test of success.

Even so, the status quo of climate talks, focused on badgering countries to join another legally binding treaty, represents diplomatic overreach. This hasn't worked in the past, and it won't in the future. The international community should give up the quest to sign a legally binding treaty in 2015. Stop fretting about political will and acknowledge the various pressures different countries face. Focus on fully implementing Copenhagen's pledge-and-review system and use that as a model for the successor to Kyoto. Then, allow that new pact to be what steers action and innovation.

Interest in this approach is slowly mounting, including in the U.S. government. Todd Stern, the State Department's special envoy for climate change, said in a 2013 speech, "An agreement that is animated by the progressive development of norms and expectations rather than by the hard edge of law, compliance, and penalty has a much better chance of working." Still, there's a long way to go before the all-or-nothing attitude that has dominated climate diplomacy for so long disappears for good.

In the meantime, the environmental clock keeps ticking.

Top image: Illustration by Maayan Pearl; photo by Joel Simon/Getty Images

Photos, top to bottom: Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images; FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images; ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images; JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images; JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Think Again

Think Again: Prostitution

Why zero tolerance makes for bad policy on world's oldest profession.

"Prostitution Is Bad."


Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, but there is still little agreement on the social and moral legitimacy of commercial sex. There are, of course, those who consider sex sacred and its sale a sin, and there are libertarians who are willing to accept nearly any degree of sexual freedom. But plenty of people have views that lie somewhere in between, and they are fighting over the fairness, regulation, and even the precise definition of what advocates and practitioners increasingly refer to as "sex work."

Take France, for instance, where a debate erupted last fall over a proposed law that would fine people $2,000 for purchasing sex. All sorts of protesters took to the streets: women arguing that the law was necessary because violence and coercion are endemic to the sex industry, and sex workers, hoisting posters with slogans like "La repression n'est pas la prevention," who condemned the law. A group of men also insisted in a letter that the government take its hands "off our whores." Ultimately, on Dec. 4, the lower house of Parliament adopted the measure.

The French case is but one example of a global dispute about what constitutes exploitation in the sale and purchase of sex -- and it also shows that one side of the argument often has the upper hand. That side, a group of odd bedfellows frequently called abolitionists, thinks that because all prostitution is inherently degrading and dangerous, it must be eliminated. The group draws from, among others, religious and faith-based organizations, both liberal and conservative political ranks, and some outspoken feminist camps. (The driving force behind the controversial measure in France is Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.)

So strong is the influence of this group that it has shaped the language typically used to describe the global sex industry. In common parlance, sex work is a dangerous phenomenon that routinely violates women's rights and perpetuates their subordination to men. There is hardly a distinction drawn between sex work and human trafficking, which involves controlling someone through threats or violence with the express purpose of exploitation. This conflation leaves no room for sex workers who make decisions for themselves; they are all just victims. "The term 'sex worker' is false advertising," says the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

This is more than a semantic issue. Since George W. Bush's administration, the U.S. government has required that international organizations receiving funding for efforts to combat trafficking and HIV/AIDS must not "promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution." In an October 2013 call for project proposals, the State Department reiterated, "The U.S. Government is opposed to prostitution and related activities, which are inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and contribute to the phenomenon of trafficking in persons."

This stance has put sex workers and their advocates  -- who support the idea that some people choose, although perhaps from a range of poor economic options, to sell sex -- in an impossible position: They must make a choice between compromising their principles or missing out on opportunities for much-needed money. Such was the case with SANGRAM, a sex workers' collective in India that refused to adopt an anti-prostitution pledge required by the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. (The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the pledge as a violation of free speech in June 2013, but this was only a partial victory: Foreign, as opposed to U.S.-based, NGOs could still be barred from receiving funds, and the court did not address PEPFAR's ban on advocating the legalization of prostitution.)

To make matters worse, the influence of prostitution's vocal opponents has contributed to a dearth of good data on the global sex industry, including its most harmful aspects. In July 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) acknowledged that U.S.-cited statistics of people trafficked around the world are questionable. The GAO highlighted a figure, cited by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), that there are 80,000 to 100,000 trafficked women and children in Cambodia. But that number came, originally, from a publication by Cambodia's Ministry of Planning that discusses the total number of sex workers in the country; there is no breakdown of who is an adult or who is a victim of trafficking.

To better understand and address enormous wrongs like trafficking, we need good data. But that first requires grasping the dangers of targeting sex work -- which involves women, men, and transgender populations -- writ large for elimination. Abolitionists say they want to protect human rights, but their efforts often undermine those rights: Campaigns and programs to end prostitution in fact lead to violence, stigmatization, and other problems for the exact people they claim to be helping.

"We Can Abolish Prostitution by Making It Illegal."


Laws regulating sex work vary widely among countries. It's illegal to buy and sell sex in the United States (with some exceptions). Germany legalized prostitution in 2002, and in December 2013, Canada's Supreme Court struck down the country's anti-prostitution measures. Thailand, meanwhile, has long outlawed sex work, yet the industry operates quite openly there.

Abolitionists typically insist that criminalization is imperative. Some have pushed for making the sale of sex illegal. Others, however, including feminists who oppose prostitution, support a different model: outlawing only the purchase of sex. They argue that criminalizing clients will force the sex industry out of business, liberating sex workers but not treating them as criminals.

Already, this model has achieved legislative success. Sweden outlawed buying sex in 1999; Norway and Iceland later followed suit. France is on the verge of joining the club, and a debate on the issue is even gaining steam in Germany. Feminist Kathleen Barry, author of Female Sexual Slavery and co-founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, has even called for an international treaty that would mandate "arresting, jailing and fining johns." (She first introduced the idea in the early 1990s, but has recently revived it.)

In reality, there is no convincing evidence that punishing "johns" decreases the incidence of commercial sex. Troublingly, Sweden's sex workers report that criminalization has simply driven the sex industry underground, with dangerous consequences: Clients have more power to say when and where they want to have sex, inhibiting workers' ability to protect themselves if need be.

Evidence shows, too, that criminalization of sale or purchase (or both) makes sex workers -- many of whom come from marginalized social groups like women, minorities, and the poor -- more vulnerable to violence and discrimination committed by law enforcement. Criminalization can also dissuade sex workers from seeking help from authorities if they are raped, trafficked, or otherwise abused. These problems have been identified in many countries: A 2012 report by the Open Society Foundations documented sex workers being harassed, extorted, and intimidated by police in the United States, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Kenya. And in Sweden, sex workers have reported that they are still targeted by police, including for invasive searches and questioning.

Sex workers, their advocates, institutions like the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and a growing number of experts in health and law argue for removing all criminal prohibitions for consenting adults. After all, sex will be bought and sold no matter a country's laws. The question, then, isn't how to get rid of sex work -- it's how to make it safe for those who do it. Decriminalization would allow sex workers access to government and international resources so they could better respond to threats like violence and trafficking, while also helping to ameliorate the social stigma and prejudice they so often face.

"We Should Rescue Prostitutes From Brothels."


On top of arguing for criminalization, some abolitionists agitate for actively removing people from the sex industry -- that is, entering brothels in "raids," pulling sex workers out, and placing them in rehabilitation programs. Proponents of rescues, whose views dominate many anti-trafficking organizations, have secured substantial international funding. The U.S. government, for example, has given grants to organizations like the International Justice Mission (IJM), a faith-based group headquartered in Washington, D.C., and the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit Northern Thailand, both of which actively promote rescues.

But rescues are often far from heroic. IJM has been criticized for failing to distinguish between sex workers and trafficking victims. Describing the response among people pulled from a Thai brothel in a 2003 IJM raid, a sex worker advocate told the Nation, "They were so startled, and said, 'We don't need rescue. How can this be a rescue when we feel like we've been arrested?'" More recently in Thailand, law enforcement has scrambled to respond to U.S. criticisms of the country's anti-trafficking record by stepping up raids. "[In 2012], the Royal Thai Police ordered all police units to spend at least 10 days each month doing anti-trafficking work," Gen. Chavalit Sawaengpuech told Public Radio International (PRI) this past October. In effect, PRI noted, the police are "trying to meet a quota even where there isn't data or evidence indicating the sex workers they are rescuing are victims after all."

Violence perpetrated by local authorities during raids has also been documented from South Asia to Africa to Eastern Europe. In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) wrote in a bulletin that "research from Indonesia and India has indicated that sex workers who are rounded up during police raids are beaten" and "coerced into having sex by corrupt police officials in exchange for their release." The bulletin added, "The raids also drive sex workers onto the streets, where they are more vulnerable to violence." So rampant have these problems with police become in Cambodia that, in June 2008*, more than 500 sex workers rallied in Phnom Penh, chanting, "Save us from saviors."

Also troubling are some of the rehabilitation centers -- run by NGOs, churches, or governments -- where "rescued" sex workers are placed. These centers profess to offer medical care, counseling, and vocational training. Yet many are known for perpetrating violence, detaining individuals, and separating them from their families. The WHO bulletin stated that some Indian and Indonesian sex workers are "placed in institutions where they are sexually exploited or physically abused." In Cambodia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented beatings, extortions, and rape at government rehabilitation sites. And in the state of Maharashtra, India, in addition to holding women for long periods of time, a rehabilitation home has suggested that marrying them off is a mode of rehabilitation.

The rescue approach certainly makes for good optics. It has been covered, notably, by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who live-tweeted a brothel raid in 2011. And the impulse to protect is surely a noble one. But in addition to ignoring that some people choose to sell sex, rescues have subjected sex workers to a whole host of abuses -- a fact certainly problematic for the abolitionists who champion such interventions in the name of human rights.

"But Kristof Writes About Child Sex Slaves -- and We Have to Save Them."


During the brothel raid Kristof covered in 2011, which took place in Cambodia, the columnist tweeted, "Girls are rescued, but still very scared. Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam." His discovery highlighted an abhorrent reality that concerns both advocates and opponents of sex work: Many in the sex industry endure forced migration, torture, captivity, and other wrongs. Some of these people are adults, but others are young girls and boys. We should do all that we can to end these horrors, and no child should be involved in the sex industry.

To that end, international laws and standards explicitly condemn child prostitution, including a protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and another to the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. UNICEF has expressed a "zero tolerance" policy on the issue. The United States, meanwhile, has taken its own legal stand with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (reauthorized in early 2013), and many countries have their own anti-trafficking legislation.

Yet, ironically, current efforts to end the sexual exploitation of children often endanger them. In many countries, authorities victimize trafficked children the same way they do adult sex workers. Raids to save children are engulfed in the same sort of challenges as the ones seeking to "liberate" adults; HRW's report on Cambodia found that children pulled from the sex industry were forced to pay bribes to the police and faced mistreatment at a government rehabilitation center. Moreover, governments frequently adopt "blanket solutions" to address trafficking, failing to acknowledge that each child's circumstances are different. "While policies are evidently needed which can be applied to all children," Mike Dottridge, former director of Anti-Slavery International, has written, "if they do not take account of the huge variations which occur in reality, they are likely to harm children."

These problems don't just exist outside the United States. Children in the U.S. sex industry are often arrested and put into the juvenile detention system "instead of in environments where they can receive needed social and protective services," noted a 2011 Congressional Research Service report. A September 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council also found that, as of early 2012, only nine states had enacted laws ensuring that minors accused of prostitution are exempted from prosecution.

Currently, then, many efforts to save children from the sex industry are neither safe nor fair to them. Correcting that poor record will mean improving laws that target human trafficking, dedicating more resources to quality interventions, addressing the social and economic conditions that make minors vulnerable to exploitation, and making sure their voices are heard. It also means respecting and engaging adult sex workers and their advocates as part of the solution, not the problem. After all, sex workers are often the first to notice those being coerced into selling sex -- including children -- or they are the first individuals whom trafficking victims reach out to for help.

"Prostitution Spreads Disease."


Sex workers have long carried the stigma of being vectors of infection. In the 1940s, U.S. government posters discouraged soldiers from purchasing sex with slogans like "SHE MAY LOOK CLEAN -- BUT" and "DISEASE IS DISGUISED." Throughout the HIV epidemic, governments have targeted sex workers for spreading the deadly virus. Crackdowns on places and people who sell sex have been routine, carried out under the auspices of protecting public health. Recently, in countries like Greece and Malawi, authorities have arrested sex workers and forced them to undergo mandatory HIV testing, a clear violation of health and privacy rights.

To be sure, there are public health concerns surrounding sex work, including high rates of sexually transmitted infections. But punishment and humiliation cannot possibly be the answer. Similarly, criminalization only impedes access to medical care. In 2012, the WHO stated, "Laws that directly or indirectly criminalize or penalize sex workers, their clients and third parties … can undermine the effectiveness of HIV and sexual health programmes."

What's more, in the United States, police in several major cities harass or arrest sex workers carrying multiple condoms, citing them as evidence of illegal activity. In response, some sex workers have told reporters, activists, and others that, fearing police, they sometimes do not carry condoms -- and thus end up having sex without them.

What we should be doing instead is focusing on protecting, not persecuting, sex workers. Grouped under the banner of "harm reduction" -- and supported by the WHO and UNAIDS -- are programs that distribute condoms, educate sex workers about HIV and other health risks, and provide them checkups, medicine, and counseling. These programs are sometimes run by sex workers themselves. In India, SANGRAM monitors condom use, cares for sex workers with HIV, and even works to bar violent customers from brothels. Anti-trafficking initiatives can also be built into peer-to-peer programs of harm reduction, as SANGRAM has done. "Sex worker rights groups should be involved in the genuine anti-trafficking work because, at the end of the day, they know their industry and their spaces and they're better at it," SANGRAM's Meena Saraswathi Seshu told the U.N. news agency IRIN in 2013.

The results of harm reduction can be dramatic. In the Ivory Coast, a 1990s prevention campaign at "Clinique de Confiance," where women received counseling, clinical exams, and testing for infections, contributed to a decline in HIV prevalence from 89 to 32 percent among participating female sex workers. In southern India, between 1995 and 2008, an increase in health interventions that supplied condoms led to a drop in the prevalence of both HIV and syphilis among sex workers.

Yet despite these successes, harm reduction receives insufficient support; according to UNAIDS in 2009, less than 1 percent of global funding for HIV prevention was being spent on HIV and sex work. At least in part, this is due to abolitionists, who have at times disrupted important health initiatives. For example, Durjoy Nari Shangho, a Bangladeshi organization, shuttered drop-in centers for sex workers after the international NGO from which it received funding signed the U.S. anti-prostitution pledge. Similarly, Doctors Without Borders distanced itself from a project on the Cambodia-Vietnam border after U.S. congressional testimony criticized it for promoting sex work.

Harm-reduction programs, if more widely accepted, spread out, and scaled up, would go a long way toward protecting sex workers' health. But they shouldn't exist in isolation. They should be coupled with decriminalization and broader legal and social efforts to normalize the sex industry.

"A Sex Workers' Union?!"


During demonstrations against France's proposed bill to criminalize the purchase of sex, some protesters carried signs that read "SEXWORK IS WORK." This is true -- and because it's work, it should treated as such. Today, a camp of legal experts contends that the many problems sex workers face can be addressed with labor laws. If sex work were considered a legitimate economic sector, the argument goes, where work conditions, fair wages, injury compensation, and other basic employment issues were matters of law, the sex industry and those within it would be less exposed to violence and other harms. 

Under a labor model, U.S. sex workers could report health risks at brothels to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They could unionize and lobby for stronger protections against police harassment. In the long run, they would be viewed as citizens like any other, and their industry as a safe and acceptable one. What's more, law professor Hila Shamir at Tel Aviv University has argued that respecting labor rights in all sectors could help address many of the social and economic forces that lead to trafficking. The same goes for the sex industry: Ensuring safe work environments would decrease exploitation and make it less enticing for sex workers to migrate abroad based on the promise of more money or other benefits.

Provocative? Perhaps. But early research already shows that the labor model can work.

Already, trade unions of sex workers have launched in the United Kingdom and other European countries, and New Zealand has applied labor protections to the sex industry. Advocacy groups have also begun to use courts to defend their labor rights. In South Africa, an appeals court ruled in 2010 that a sex worker who said she'd been unfairly fired from a massage parlor ("for refusing to perform oral sex, spending time in her room with her boyfriend, choosing her clients and failing to book enough customers," according to the Mail & Guardian) had a right to a hearing before a government body that settles labor disputes. Assisting with the case was the Cape Town-based Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce.

In lieu of formal unions, sex workers' collectives also assert power vis-à-vis brothel owners and police. According to UNAIDS, Service Workers in Group, a collective in Thailand, was able to improve relationships with the police force by introducing an "internship" program, in which police cadets learn about HIV prevention and get to know collective members. This has helped improve police attitudes toward sex work. Moreover, researchers found in a 2009 study that sex workers in collectives in South India have been able to deter arrest and call on one another for assistance when faced with police harassment and other issues.

All these examples show the ways in which a labor approach can improve sex workers' lives. Yet moving public favor toward this model won't be easy. Beyond changing minds and diminishing support for abolishing sex work, it will require reallocating resources and amending or throwing out harmful policies. It will also require managing backlash, like the international protest that opponents of prostitution threatened the United Nations with last September, in response to the body's various reports supporting the decriminalization of sex work.

As research and experience show, however, change is essential for the rights of sex workers -- the very thing abolitionists claim they wish to protect. Sex workers deserve not only the right to choose how they make a living, but also the right to be free from the fear, mistreatment, and -- at the root of it all -- misconceptions that have long plagued their industry.

*Correction: The print version of this article in the January/February 2014 issue incorrectly stated the date of the rally by the more than 500 sex workers in Phnom Penh who chanted "Save us from saviors." The rally was in June 2008, not June 2013. (Return to reading.)

Photos, top to bottom: VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images; MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images; MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images; VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images; World War II-era posters discouraging soldiers from purchasing sex; Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/GettyImages