Sofija Voronova with Romy Boden.
Child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse are among the worst forms of violence against children, and constitute serious crimes that know no borders. The continuous increase in child sexual exploitation and abuse, not least due to the Covid‑19 pandemic, underscores the importance of harmonised national legislation and international cooperation to prevent these offences, protect the victims and prosecute the perpetrators. The European Day contributes to raising awareness on the need for prevention and protection of children.
18 November marks the European Day on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse – a yearly Council of Europe initiative raising awareness and facilitating open discussion on the need to prevent child sexual exploitation and abuse, and to protect children against these crimes. The 2021 edition focuses on ‘Making the circle of trust truly safe for children’. Indeed, abuse mostly occurs in the child’s circle of trust (at home, at school or in their community) and is inflicted by someone the child knows, which makes it extremely difficult for children to report and overcome such abuse. As acts of abuse are largely under-reported, it is difficult to measure the true scale of the phenomenon, and the known number of cases only represents the tip of the iceberg. A recent Unicef report estimated that child sexual abuse and exploitation were prevalent in all countries of the world, and that 1 in 8 children globally have been sexually abused or exploited at some point in their life. In Europe, about 1 in 5 children are estimated to be victims of some form of sexual violence, and between 70 and 85 % of the child victims know their abuser. One third of abused children never tell anyone about the abuse. Reasons include feelings of shame and guilt, fear of not being believed, not knowing whom to tell, or being unable to recognise the abuse, for example.
With the rapid digitalisation of our societies, child sexual abuse and exploitation increasingly occur online. As the European Commission reports, the United States-based non-profit organisation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), registered a dramatic increase in reports of online child sexual exploitation over the past decade. The number of reports worldwide rose from 1 million in 2010 to almost 17 million in 2019, including nearly 70 million images and videos, and jumped to a record high 21.7 million in 2020. As regards the European Union (EU), the number of reports increased from 23 000 in 2010 to more than 725 000 in 2019, with over 3 million images and videos. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, Europe – where almost 90 % of such material was hosted in 2019 – has become the largest host of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in the world. These developments have further intensified with the Covid‑19 pandemic, as during the lockdowns children spent more time online unsupervised, which has made them more vulnerable to exploitation. Europol observed a surge in the (already huge) amount of CSAM shared on the internet, highlighting the need to promote preventive and educational initiatives across Europe.
International and EU efforts to combat child sexual abuse
International legal framework
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) formed the starting point for an international framework for combating child sexual abuse and exploitation, providing for the protection of children from all forms of (sexual) exploitation and abuse, and maltreatment. In 2007, the Council of Europe adopted a Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (CETS No 201). Known as the ‘Lanzarote Convention’, it was the first international instrument to establish the various forms of child sexual abuse as criminal offences. Furthermore, it requires parties to adopt appropriate legislation and measures to prevent these offences from occurring, to protect victims, and to prosecute perpetrators. It entered into force on 1 July 2010 and has been ratified by all EU Member States.
EU legal framework
The main EU legal instrument is Directive 2011/93/EU of 13 December 2011 on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. The directive has criminalised various forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation, harmonised these criminal offences across the EU and established minimum sanctions. Furthermore, Article 25 of the directive, on the removal of and blocking access to websites containing or disseminating CSAM, contributes to the fight against online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Adopted one year later, the victims’ rights Directive 2012/29/EU complements the existing framework, as it takes a child-sensitive approach and requires primary consideration to be given to the best interests of the child.
Combating child sexual abuse, especially online, is among the main priorities on the current EU agenda and one of the objectives of the new EU Security Union strategy for 2020‑2025. In July 2020, the European Commission adopted the EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse, setting out eight initiatives aimed at fully implementing and developing the EU legal framework, identifying remaining gaps, strengthening the law enforcement response, enhancing prevention, involving industry and supporting international multi-stakeholder cooperation. The strategy also envisages the creation of a European centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse. The Commission also plans to propose new legislation requiring online communication services (i.e. instant messaging platforms and applications) to detect, report and remove CSAM. In the meantime, the co-legislators adopted a temporary derogation from EU rules on confidentiality of electronic communications to enable voluntary detection, reporting and removal. In parallel, EU lawmakers are working on the proposal for a digital services act (DSA) aimed at updating the rules governing digital services and creating a safer online environment. The DSA would put detailed notice and action mechanisms in place for online platforms and hosting services to fight the dissemination of illegal content, including CSAM. Ensuring that children can safely navigate the digital environment is also a priority in the new EU strategy on the rights of the child, which envisages stepping up the fight against all forms of online child sexual abuse and updating the strategy for a better internet for children.
International cooperation through EU agencies, initiatives and networks
EU agencies such as Europol support law enforcement cooperation among Member States, to form a united front against (online) sexual exploitation and abuse of children in Europe and beyond. The stop child abuse – trace an object initiative, aimed at helping trace the origin of objects linked to criminal investigations, is an example of Europol’s cooperation efforts with society at large; it led to the identification of a number of victims, as well as offenders. Eurojust supports judicial cooperation among Member States, to facilitate the prosecution of child sexual abuse perpetrators in cross-border cases. The European Commission also funds and supports several initiatives and networks, such as the better internet for kids initiative to raise awareness of the potential risks children may face online, and INHOPE, a network of hotlines combatting online CSAM by analysing and reporting illegal content. The WePROTECT Global Alliance, supported by the USA, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission, develops political and practical solutions to make the digital world safe for children, and aims to prevent online sexual abuse and long-term harm. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), co-funded by the EU, provides a hotline for reporting online sexual abuse content globally, and raises awareness through prevention campaigns.
|European Parliament position|
The European Parliament condemns all forms of child sexual exploitation and abuse, and is supporting the Commission in its efforts to combat these crimes both offline and online. In its resolutions (e.g. 2015/2129(INI); 2019/2876(RSP); 2020/2791(RSP); 2021/2523(RSP)), the Parliament urges Member States to fully implement Directive 2011/93/EU and calls for better protection of children, as well as a greater focus on prevention and awareness-raising. Voicing its concerns about the surge in online child sexual abuse, Parliament stresses that information and communications technology companies and online platforms should take their share of responsibility in the fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation online and calls on the Member States to enhance cooperation between law enforcement authorities and civil society organisations, including hotline networks. Parliament also supports the creation of a European centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse.
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘European Day on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament