An international judicial panel working with the United Nations’ AIDS agency issued recommendations in March on laws related to sexual conduct, including consensual sex between adolescents. Social media posts misrepresented the recommendations, with one falsely claiming, “UN wants to decriminalize sex between minors and adults.”
The International Commission of Jurists, or ICJ, is an international human rights organization comprised of 60 judges and lawyers “dedicated to ensuring respect for international human rights standards through law.” The ICJ is an advocacy body working in coordination with the United Nations to develop and advocate for those standards at the international level.
On March 8, the ICJ, along with the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS, released a report titled, “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.” The report is composed of 21 legal principles to guide the application of international and criminal law in an attempt to curb the abuse of state power.
The ICJ noted, “The 8 March Principles are aimed at offering a clear, accessible and operational legal framework and practice legal guidance to parliaments, judges, prosecutors and advocates.”
One principle in the March 8 report has been the subject of several viral posts on Instagram. Principle 16, titled “Consensual Sexual Conduct,” addresses “adolescent sexual activity,” and reads in part:
ICJ report, March 8: 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.
Following the release of the report, posts on social media misrepresented the language in the recommendation. An Instagram post from an account called truth.in.media falsely claimed, “UN Wants to Decriminalize Sex Between Minors and Adults.”
An Instagram post from Live Action, a nonprofit focused on anti-abortion issues, contained multiple slides regarding the U.N. report. The first slide contained an image with the misleading message, “UN Calls for Decriminalizing Sex with Minors.” To date, the post has received over 30,000 likes.
But the report does not include any mention of the decriminalization of sex between adults and minors. The report offers recommendations on how to apply the law to adolescents of similar ages.
Fighting Sexual Exploitation of Children
In response to the viral posts, the U.N. issued a statement on April 18 from the spokesperson of the Secretary-General, which read, “I want to read something on behalf of our colleagues at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), because there has been a lot of — how to say — malicious misreporting on a recent report on the age of legal consent. And I can tell you that the report released by the International Commission of Jurists in March has recently been misrepresented on a number of websites.”
“It did not call for the decriminalizing of sex with children, nor did it call for the abolition of the age of consent. The International Commission of Jurists report set out legal principles to guide the application of the international human rights law to criminal law across a range of issues. In the application of law, it is recognized that criminal sanctions are not appropriate against adolescents of similar ages for consensual non-exploitive sexual activity. So, too, it is recognized that adolescents should not be prevented from accessing health services, which protect them. The UN 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 U.N. statement said.
In an email to FactCheck.org, Christine Stegling, UNAIDS deputy executive director for the policy, advocacy and knowledge branch, echoed the statement by the U.N., saying the report had been “misrepresented” in the social media posts.
The ICJ also released a statement on April 20, saying, “The commitment of the United Nations to fighting sexual exploitation of children and the content of The 8 March Principles have subsequently been seriously misrepresented on a number of social media and websites. 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.”
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.
Christine Stegling. UNAIDS deputy executive director for the policy, advocacy and knowledge branch. Email to FactCheck.org. 22 Apr 2023.
Di Fiore, Bettina. “Fact Check Response: What does the UN-linked report actually say about children and consent?” Live Action. 21 Apr 2023.
Gerald Neuman. Professor of international, foreign and comparative law at the Harvard Kennedy School. Email to FactCheck.org. 26 Apr 2023.
International Commission of Jurists. “The 8 March Principles for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Criminal Law Proscribing Conduct…” ICJ. 8 Mar 2023.
International Commission of Jurists. “The Commission.” Accessed 21 Apr 2023.
International Commission of Jurists. “Statement Regarding The 8 March Principles.” ICJ. 4 Apr 2023.
Live Action. “UN Calls for Decriminalizing Sex with Minors.” Instagram. 19 Apr 2023.
Noah Brandt. Live Action. Email to Factcheck.org. 21 Apr 2023.
Associated Press. “UN report did not call for decriminalizing sex between adults and minors.” 21 Apr 2023.
UNAIDS. “New legal principles launched on International Women’s Day to advance decriminalization efforts.” Accessed 21 Apr 2023.
United Nations. “Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.” 18 Apr 2023.