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On June 4, Justice Minister Peter MacKay tabled an anti-prostitution bill that he claimed was not anti-prostitute. According to the minister, the target of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Person Act, Bill C-36, was “the perpetrators, the perverts, [and] the pimps.” But don’t be fooled, if this bill becomes law, sex workers will face arrest, violence and violations of their human rights.

The law would criminalize communicating for the purposes of selling sexual services in public, or buying, advertising or benefitting from the sale of sexual services. These provisions won’t protect sex workers; they will do the opposite, and they violate their right to security of person and freedom of expression. Criminalizing communication will disproportionately target Aboriginal, poor, and transgender women working on the streets for arrest. It will also severely limit sex workers’ abilities to take life-saving measures such as screening clients. Last year in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court recognized this concern, saying that “communication is an essential tool that can decrease risk.”

Criminalizing clients will also harm sex workers, forcing them to work in more dangerous and isolated locations. In 2012, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which Human Rights Watch has criticized for procedural shortcomings, rightly said that fear of police harassment or arrest  “denies the sex worker the time to innately sense whether a client is a ‘bad trick’,” and that moving to a darker, isolated area “puts her in a more dangerous environment.”

Criminalizing clients will also make it impossible to open safe refuges for sex workers to take clients to, such as Grandma’s House, opened in Vancouver by the Aboriginal sex worker Jamie-Lee Hamilton. Again the Supreme Court was clear: “For some prostitutes, particularly those who are destitute, safe houses such as Grandma’s House may be critical.”

The Conservative government purports to draw inspiration from the “Nordic model” which seeks to criminalize clients but not sex workers. Yet the model is not as successful as the government contends. International health and human rights agencies and experts have all concluded that criminalizing sex work and related activities threaten sex workers’ health and rights. In December 2012, UNAIDS, WHO and the UN Population Fund called for governments to work toward decriminalizing sex work and removing unjust laws and regulations against sex workers.

Last year Human Rights Watch adopted a similar policy for adult, consensual sex, favouring decriminalizing sex work. We came to this decision after decades of research on abuses against sex workers in more than a dozen countries, and working closely with sex worker organizations and their representatives.

We found that where sex work was criminalized, sex workers are reluctant to report violence and abuse. After looking at evidence from around the world, we concluded that criminalizing other aspects of sex work can also lead to harm.

To be sure, decriminalizing sex work would not eliminate all of the risks of violence and exploitation for sex workers. However, decriminalization allows sex workers to organize to prevent and address human rights abuses, including trafficking, and to obtain justice. In New Zealand, where sex work was decriminalized in 2003, authorities have not detected a single case of trafficking in the sex trade despite multiple investigations. Research has found that sex workers’ ability to refuse clients and to report abuse to police had greatly increased under decriminalization.

Far from assisting “exploited persons” or “protecting communities,” this bill is a step backward for human rights, and especially women’s rights, in Canada.

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