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The International Commission of Jurists published a set of legal principles in March about applying a human rights-based approach to criminal law on matters involving sex, reproduction and other areas.
It did not call for decriminalizing adults having sex with minors, nor does it mention the topic.
A U.N. official and human rights experts said the principle being wrongly characterized refers to applying criminal law to similarly aged adolescents in which one may be under the legal age of consent.
A document published in March by the International Commission of Jurists with United Nations backing has been the subject of a flood of social media posts and news articles falsely claiming that the U.N. has proposed decriminalizing adults having sex with children.
In a five-year process, the commission — in partnership with UNAIDS, or the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, and the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights — crafted a set of legal principles for a human rights-based approach to criminal law on matters involving sex, reproduction, HIV and more.
Critics seized on a portion of the report that discussed "consensual sexual conduct."
"U.N. calls for decriminalizing sex with minors," reads text over a photo of a young girl on an Instagram post shared April 19.
That was the first of five slides on the post. The second had text that incorrectly said the report called for "all forms of sexual activity to be decriminalized globally, including sex with children under the age of 18." A third image shared real text from the report with highlighted sentences.
This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
The report does not propose decriminalizing sex with children, nor does it promote adults having sex with minors, said a UNAIDS official and experts we interviewed.
The part of the document highlighted in the Instagram post and by others is from Principle 16 of the report.
It reads, in part:
"Moreover, sexual conduct involving persons below the domestically prescribed minimum age of consent to sex may be consensual in fact, if not in law. In this context, the enforcement of criminal law should reflect the rights and capacity of persons under 18 years of age to make decisions about engaging in consensual sexual conduct and their right to be heard in matters concerning them."
We reached out to the International Commission of Jurists for comment and didn’t hear back, but the organization issued a statement on its website April 20.
The statement said the document has been "seriously misrepresented" online and that the "principles do not call for the decriminalization of sex with children, nor do they call for the abolition of a domestically prescribed minimum age of consent to sex." It added that the commission "stresses that states have a clear obligation under international law to protect children from all forms of abuses, such as child sexual abuse."
The report has been "misrepresented," Christine Stegling, UNAIDS’ deputy executive director for the policy, advocacy and knowledge branch, told PolitiFact.
It did not call for decriminalizing sex with children, nor abolishing the age of consent for sex, she said. The International Commission of Jurists laid out legal principles to guide the application of international human rights law to criminal law across a range of issues, Stegling said.
"In the application of law, it is recognized that criminal sanctions are not appropriate against adolescents of similar ages for consensual non-exploitative sexual activity," she said.
Stegling said the U.N. "is resolute in fighting the sexual exploitation of children, upholds that sexual exploitation and abuse of children is a crime, and supports countries to protect children."
The report makes no reference to adults and children having sex. On three occasions, the report said the principles are meant to offer a legal framework for applying criminal law to conduct associated with "consensual sexual activities, including in contexts such as sex outside marriage, same-sex sexual relations, adolescent sexual activity and sex work."
The portion highlighted in the third slide of the Instagram post does not mean what the Instagram post claims, said Bridget Arimond, a law professor and director of the LLM Program in International Human Rights at Northwestern University School of Law.
Arimond interpreted the language to refer to similarly aged people — perhaps an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old — engaged in consensual sex that may not technically be legal in some places if the younger person was below the age of consent.
"The spirit of this paragraph would suggest that states ought to rethink laws that criminalize consensual conduct between people of relatively nearer age," Arimond said.
Arimond said the Instagram post is falsely suggesting a "scary-monster scenario" of a young child consenting to sex with a much older adult.
Arimond also noted that the second slide in the post alleging that the report called for decriminalizing "all forms of sexual activity" ignores that the report was speaking about consensual activity.
Ton Liefaard, a professor of children’s rights at Leiden University in the Netherlands, also said the Instagram post’s claims are inaccurate. He said the principle refers to the prevention of criminalization of sexual conduct between adolescents.
"The decriminalization of sex with minors with adults is not meant to be affected by this principle," he said.
An Instagram post said, "U.N. calls for decriminalizing sex with minors."
The U.N. partnered with the International Commission of Jurists on a report calling for a human rights-based approach to criminal law. It did not call for decriminalizing adults having sex with minors. Experts said the guidance was meant to apply to consensual sex between adolescents of similar ages.
We rate the claim False.
Instagram post, April 19, 2023
UNAIDS, "New legal principles launched on International Women’s Day to advance decriminalization efforts," March 8, 2023
International Commission of Jurists, "The 8 March Principles for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Criminal Law Proscribing Conduct Associated with Sex, Reproduction, Drug Use, HIV, Homelessness and Poverty," March 8, 2023
International Commission of Jurists, "ICJ publishes a new set of legal principles to address the harmful human rights impact of unjustified criminalization of individuals and entire communities," March 8, 2023
International Commission of Jurists, "Statement regarding The 8 March Principles," April 20, 2023
United Nations, "Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General," April 18, 2023
Emailed statement from Christine Stegling, UNAIDS deputy executive director for the policy, advocacy and knowledge branch, April 19, 2023
Phone and email interviews, Bridget Arimond, law professor and director of the LL.M. Program in International Human Rights at Northwestern University School of Law, April 19, 2023
Email interview, Ton Liefaard, professor of children’s rights at Leiden University, April 20, 2023
United Nations, "Convention on the Rights of the Child," Nov. 20, 1989
U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, "General comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence"
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements"
BHW Law Firm, "What is the Age of Consent in the United States?"
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