In the past two years, key United Nations agencies have released documents affirming the importance of decriminalization to guarantee the rights of sex workers. Much of this material has emerged in the context of health issues, often in regards to HIV/AIDS. In December 2012 the World Health Organization, perhaps the most technically rigorous UN body working on issues pertaining to health and rights, released new guidelines for the prevention and treatment of HIV and other STIs in the context of sex work in partnership with UNAIDS, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Network of Sex Work Projects. Front and center the first “good practice” guideline derived from “common sense, ethics and human rights principles,” recommends that “all countries should work toward decriminalization of sex work and elimination of the unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.” The World Health Organization also advises that governments take extra steps to end violence and discrimination against sex workers through “antidiscrimination laws and regulations” guaranteeing “sex workers’ right to social, health and financial services.”

This approach taken in the new WHO guidelines has been applauded by sex worker rights organizations.

The recognition of sex work as work has been building throughout the UN agencies. During the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. in July 2012, representatives of the International Labour Organization (ILO) affirmed that sex work is an “economic activity” like other forms of labor referred to in ILO Recommendation 200 concerning HIV/AIDS. Two weeks before the conference the Global Commission on HIV and the Law—an independent commission launched in June 2010 by the United Nations Development Program—released the results of regional consultations about the impact of the law in the context of HIV. This report provides a prodigious amount of evidence about the impact of criminalization on the rights and health of communities of sex workers globally and recommends that sex work be decriminalized. It also recommends that “consensual adult sex work” be seen as a form of work and clearly differentiated from “sexual exploitation” and other forms of abuse. In 2010 the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health reported to the Human Rights Council that criminalization of sex work leads to “[un]safe working conditions, and a lack of recourse to legal remedies for occupational health issues” and that the failure to distinguish between sex work and trafficking in legislation and interventions “increasingly infringes sex workers’ right to health.”

The recognition of sex work as work and calls for decriminalization coming from peak global bodies validate decades of struggle of communities of sex workers globally. However, despite these victories, in many localities sex workers continue to be persecuted by state agents such as the police. In many jurisdictions, such as across the US, legislators are holding firm to their beliefs that sex work should remain criminalized. Worrisome trends towards re-criminalization of sex work in some parts of Europe and the former Soviet states have emerged. Clearly the global fight for rights must continue. The recent acknowledgement of rights of sex workers in the context of HIV is important, but we must resist the temptation to confine our discussion of sex workers rights to disease prevention. This sentiment was beautifully expressed by one of the sex worker organizations cited by the Global Commission on HIV:

When I can work in safe and fair conditions. When I am free of discrimination. When I am free of labels like “immoral” or “victim”. When I am free from unethical researchers. When I am free to do my job without harassment, violence or breaking the law. When sex work is recognised as work. When we have safety, unity, respect and our rights. When I am free to choose my own way. THEN I am free to protect myself and others from HIV.

Empower Foundation, Thailand, Asia-Pacific Regional Dialogue, 16–17 February 2011