I find myself again sharing verbatim a presentation by United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Huma Rights, Ms. Kate Gilmore. I could summarize for you yet I find her words powerful just the way they are said by her and I think the full statement is worth a read. This statement took place at the on March 7th during the annual full day meeting on the rights of the child. In a separate HRC31 blog post, HRC31 Combats Online Exploitation of Children, I provide highlights of action taken by the Human Rights Council during this 31st session.
Here is Kate’s statement: (She likes to be called Kate.)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honor to open this annual day of discussion on children’s rights whose theme of “Information and communications technology and child sexual exploitation” is particularly welcome.
Ours is an era in which access to the internet offers us all unparalleled access to information and provides unprecedented levels of contact with people far and wide. In the hands of those whose interests are convivial and whose contact across distance is congenial, the Internet is perhaps the greatest equalizing force for interconnectedness that we have ever seen. Making of access to it deemed a right. But when users distort and demean, for purposes of exploitation, the access, transparency and privacy that the Internet provides grave risks emerge and those with the least resources to defend themselves against those risks – children – are made vulnerable in the virtual as in the physical world.
Such exploitation online can take many forms. Perhaps the creation, publication and distribution of sexual abuse material (child pornography) captures most attention, but we are seeing new forms of exploitation. And OHCHR welcomes the UN’s recently issued "Terminology guidelines on the sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children" aimed at standardizing terminology in this area, given the confusion between some existing and emerging terms.
Grooming – which involves conditioning a child to ensure that he or she later acquiesces to sexual contact; the circulation of self-generated content, often referred to as “sexting”; sexual extortion, or “sextortion”, where self-generated images are used by perpetrators to manipulate or coerce children to obtain sexual favours from them; and child sexual abuse live streaming, where adults pay to direct and view a live video of children performing sexual acts in front of a webcam.
As Internet adoption rates grow so too will online child sexual exploitation.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child predates the Internet of course as do most of us! However, its provisions, and those of its Optional Protocols, are fully applicable to the digital environment, and provide us with important guidance for the realization of children’s rights online.
These include articles 16, 19, 34 and 36 on harmful information; privacy; reputational risks; abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse, and other forms of exploitation prejudicial to the child’s welfare.
The Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography also prohibits representation of children engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.
Risks vary with age. The younger the child the more vulnerable they are online. On the other hand, older children – coming into puberty - are the primary targets of sex offenders who use the Internet to groom victims and to meet them offline, and they also face higher risks of exposure to harmful material and cyberbullying.
Creating a safe online environment for children lies in the setting of a balance between maximizing the social and intellectual benefits of ICTs while minimizing risks and shoring up adults’ accountability for children’s safety and protection – without thereby hampering other rights including freedom of expression.
As yet, many States are without an adequate legislative framework to facilitate effective investigations into and prosecution of online sexual exploitation and abuse of children. As of 2012, only 69 of 196 States had legislation considered sufficient to combat child pornography offences, while 53 States still had no legislation that specifically addressed child pornography. Of the 74 States that had some legislation specifically addressing child pornography, 47 did not criminalize the knowing possession of child pornography, regardless of intent to distribute. Equally, often criminal procedure and evidence laws do not reflect the unique challenges of investigating and prosecuting offences related to online sexual exploitation and abuse of children.
Given the borderless nature of child online sexual abuse, it is also key that States strengthen cooperation through multilateral, regional and bilateral arrangements, with appropriate safeguards to protect privacy and legal rights. Mutual legal assistance and transnational cooperation for effective detection and reporting systems, information-sharing and other security systems are crucial. Under the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, States are required to cooperate in the investigation, extradition or criminal proceedings brought in respect of the abuse or exploitation of children. Extraterritorial jurisdiction for those crimes could have a deterrent effect, but requires effective international cooperation.
Such intergovernmental cooperation should be complemented through other international partnerships among key stakeholders, particularly in the fields of science, academia and the private sector. Their purpose should be to develop the technological tools necessary to enable identification, investigation and prosecution before the courts, as well as the active involvement and participation of children as advocates of child protection. Governments should establish accessible, safe and child-friendly reporting systems and institutions, which should be supported by effective and well-resourced services respectful of children’s rights.
Promoting children’s rights requires not only that we protect them from risks, but that we enabling them to contribute directly to their own protection.
Children adopt new technologies with ease, but they need skills and judgement to remain secure as they explore the digital universe. As such, we should invest in the strengthening of children’s ICT capacities, and support them to develop progressively into adults who are themselves responsible digital citizens.
Perhaps embarrassingly, even very young children have a more sophisticated understanding of the technologies than their parents and caregivers. Frankly many of us adults - parents, teachers and caregivers - are not well informed about the risks, about options for online safety tools or about how best to create safe digital environments for children to more safely explore. Parents and caregivers must be encouraged and enabled to better understand the online environment, how children and young people operate in it, the type of risks they might encounter, the harm that can potentially ensue and the most effective ways to avoid this harm.
In this communities and schools also have a unique role to play. Through appropriate curriculum, children can gain the skills and abilities to use the Internet with confidence, to avoid and address risks.
All of us here should be aware that sexual exploitation on line, grooming, sexting, sex-torsion and live streaming of child sexual abuse are a harrowing reality of our digital universe having a direct impact on children’s physical and mental integrity, and securing a range of access that is likely to increase, not the least because there is alive today the world’s largest ever generation of adolescents.
The answer however is not to deprive children of their access nor to use the risks they face as reason to curtail disproportionately the freedoms that we must uphold as much in the virtual world as in the physical world.
That children are at risk of injury when crossing a road, does not justify their being locked up at home. Sound polices – that manage the flow of road traffic, without unduly impeding it; that secure the quality and maintenance of roads; in-school road-safety lessons for children; watchfulness on the street on the part of all adults and sound legislation so that there can be no impunity for those who would drive negligently, recklessly or, who, in malice, would actually target the child who is crossing a road – conceptually, these common policy and practice solutions are as pertinent to the information superhighway as they are to our enjoyment of, and child safety on, actual highways and bi-ways.