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Council of Europe Parliamentarians discuss measures against online child sexual abuse

CoE PACE group photo

UNICEF Innocenti has hosted a major meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) where combatting online child sexual abuse was a major topic of discussion.

The meeting, held in Florence on 1 December, brought together the PACE Network of contact parliamentarians from up to 16 countries together with representatives of UNICEF Innocenti, INTERPOL, Middlesex University and ECPAT International, among others.

Members adopted the Florence Declaration which underlined the need for sound legislative frameworks based on the Lanzarote Convention to protect children from new forms of sexual abuse in the digital environment.

The Lanzarote Convention commits 42 signatory countries in Europe and beyond to criminalization of all forms of sexual offences against children, and specifies adoption of legislation to prevent sexual violence and prosecute perpetrators.

New forms of online child sexual abuse addressed in the meeting included: live streaming, self-generated images by children, online grooming and virtual reality. The ‘dark web’ was also cited as a part of the internet increasingly being used to share child sexual content online. The Declaration also recognised the need to support victims of child sexual abuse.

“Online, children can encounter abuse and exploitation from peers and adults alike. Exposure to harmful material and violation of privacy are ever present concerns,” said Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

“It is the responsibility of all of us to meet these challenges in a manner which is strategic, cooperative and has a firm grounding in human rights.”

Cecile Diot, criminal intelligence officer at INTERPOL called for a multi-disciplinary approach to tackling the issue and told parliamentarians it was crucial for NGO’s, private companies and civil society to work ever more closely to overcome the problem. It was estimated 80 per cent of content on the so-called dark web was related to child sexual abuse, she said.

”Altogether we may have a chance to defeat this criminality. We need a network to defeat a network,” said Ms. Diot.  

Talks also focused on supporting parents, families and caregivers in protecting and empowering children against sexual violence in the digital environment, a key part of the declaration adopted by MP's.

“Parents are an example of how to behave and what to do. If we as parents are inseparable with digital devices, our kids will do the same,” said Sevinj Fataliyeva, a parliamentarian from Azerbaijan.

Dutch legislator Johan Van Der Hout said efforts to tackle child sexual abuse online were primitive if children’s voices were not accounted for. He called for a child-centred approach to the issue.

“We have to empower them [children] on the internet. We cannot take it away,” he said.

The views were mirrored by criminologist and Middlesex University researcher Elena Martellozzo, who conducts research on how children feel when exposed to sexual content online. Ms. Martellozzo said children were being exposed to online sexual content at earlier ages and there is a need to better understand the impact.

“We need to focus on empowering young children. We need to focus on what they can be exposed to so they can have a better online environment which is a wonderful environment,” she said. “Critically engage with them about the material they find online.”

Researchers from UNICEF Innocenti also presented Global Kids Online as a model for improving evidence on children’s experiences online. The global Research Synthesis pilot study on child internet use conducted by UNICEF Innocenti and the London School of Economics explores the opportunities and risks of the internet for children.

According to the study up to two thirds of children in some countries have seen sexual content online, while a minority had contact with unknown persons online. Despite potential risks, research showed that most children had met persons with some kind of prior connection to them, such as a fellow classmate or community member. Parents also reported low digital skills, complicating potential risks to children online.

“The conversation of what children do online should be part of the general discussion with children. It backfires when trying to ban kids from using phones,” said Jasmina Byrne, child protection specialist at UNICEF Innocenti.

“In order to combat sexual violence against children we need legal and policy measures above all.”

(6 December 2016)

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