Prostitution is a human right, according to a resolution adopted by the International Council of Amnesty International yesterday.
The highly controversial resolution calls for the complete decriminalisation of all aspects of "consensual sex work", though it does not take a position on whether prostitution should be "formally recognised as work for the purposes of regulation".
The resolution also condemns human trafficking and acknowledges that "sex workers often engage in sex work due to marginalisation and limited choices".
The council's decision will form the basis of a final policy report.
According to Amnesty, decriminalising prostitution and recognising the human rights of sex workers is the best way to ensure their safety. Its Secretary General Salil Shetty said: "Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International's future work on this important issue."
However, the decision was fiercely criticised by campaigners who said that decriminalising it would "empower pimps and brothel owners around the globe" and accused Amnesty of naivety. Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallstrom said: "It is a myth about the happy prostitute who does this as a free choice. Unfortunately, I can now hear people saying 'hurrah' — all those johns and pimps who run the brothels. It's a multibillion-euro industry."
Among many other critics was former US President Jimmy Carter, who wrote before the vote that prostitution was "inherently harmful" and that "protecting (or expanding) that action legitimizes the sexual exploitation of a shocking number of vulnerable people, the large majority of whom are women and children".
CARE's Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation Policy Officer Louise Gleich said: "While well intentioned, this is a deeply regrettable decision by Amnesty.
"Contrary to what Amnesty would have us believe, the vast majority of sex workers are not there out of choice but because of coercion, poverty, abuse or trafficking.
"Decriminalising prostitution will only empower pimps and brothel owners around the globe and this sends a terrible message to those involved in prostitution not through choice but through circumstance.
"The real tragedy is many victims of trafficking and those involved in prostitution may now feel Amnesty is no longer on their side."