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FACTCHECK

Debunked: No, a UN report doesn't call to decriminalise sex 'between adults and children'

The document, which wasn’t written by the UN, argues that the same age of consent should apply regardless of gender or marital status.

POSTS ONLINE FALSELY claim that a report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) shows that the United Nations advocates that all sexual activity, including between adults and children, should be decriminalised.

The source of the claims is an article that has since altered its headline and main text.

However, screenshots of the original article continue to spread online with the previous headline, which reads: “UN report calls for decriminalization of all sexual activity, including between adults and children.”

This screenshot, along with other version of the claim, have been posted many dozens of times on Facebook and Instagram, as well as being shared more than 10,000 times on Twitter after being posted at least 10 times by verified accounts. 

One such post, which contains the phrase “Should adults be allowed to convince kids to perform sex acts with them? The UN says yes.” has been viewed on Twitter more than 5,700,000 times. There is no disclaimer on Twitter that the claim might be untrue. 

The claim is also popular on fringe social media sites. 

However, the claim is not true.

The paper that the claim is based on — called the 8 March Principles — was written by the ICJ, a non-governmental organisation comprising 60 jurists, and not the UN, although they did help launch it.

The paper neither advocates that all sexual activity, nor sexual activity between adults and children, should be decriminalised.

The original article - whose headline is now being shared widely – was published by LiveAction.org, an American anti-abortion organisation.

It based its claim that the 8 March Principles called for the decriminalisation of sexual activity between adults and children on two paragraphs within the ICJ paper.

These read:

“With respect to the enforcement of criminal law, any prescribed minimum age of consent to sex must be applied in a non-discriminatory manner. Enforcement may not be linked to the sex/gender of participants or age of consent to marriage.

“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.

“Pursuant to their evolving capacities and progressive autonomy, persons under 18 years of age should participate in decisions affecting them, with due regard to their age, maturity and best interests, and with specific attention to non-discrimination guarantees.”

The first paragraph only mentions that the age of consent in a country cannot change based on sex, gender or marriage.

So the recommendation is that a different age of consent cannot apply between two girls than for two boys, for example, and that sex with a person under the usual age of consent should not be considered legal if the perpetrator marries them.

The second paragraph also does not explicitly address sexual activity between adults and children, let alone say this should be decriminalised.

It could refer to two people under the legal age of consent or, in countries like Ireland where the age of consent is 17, between a child just above the age of consent with a child a few months younger than them.

Situations like these are often covered by so-called Romeo and Juliet laws, which are aimed at teenagers who are a couple of years apart and have had consensual sexual relations. In Irish law, this means that a person who has sex with someone between the ages of 15-17 is not breaking the law if they are less than two years between them.

Similar laws exist in some US states, though the most common age of consent in America is 16.

The article never backs up the headline’s claim that the UN calls for the decriminalisation of all sexual activity.

In response to misinformation about the publication, the ICJ released a statement clarifying their position. It reads, in part:
“The 8 March 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.

“Indeed, the ICJ stresses that States have a clear obligation under international law to protect children from all forms of abuses, such as child sexual abuse, including through the criminalization of such conduct.”

A UN spokesperson also addressed the false claims at a press briefing, calling them “malicious misreporting on a recent report on the age of legal consent”.

Responding to an article by the Associated Press, citing legal experts who contradicted the original claims, LiveAction amended the story and released a response.

Their headline now reads: “UN-linked report calls for decriminalization of all sexual activity, says children can consent to sex”, which remains misleading.

The article still does not back up the claim that the report calls for the decriminalisation of all sexual activity.

While the document can be read to mean that some children can consent to sex, that is consistent with the law in Ireland, which says that 17-year-old children can legally consent to sex, or most US states, where the age of consent is 16.

Neither the UN, nor the International Commission of Jurists released a report advocating that all sexual activity be decriminalised. The report also does not advocate decriminalising sexual activity between adults and children.

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