By: A. Santiago
Sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography and child prostitution are particularly cruel crimes and constitute serious violations of fundamental rights. The development of the Internet and the facilitation of international travel have further aggravated these phenomena. Victims of abuse and exploitation must receive special protection and care, while offenders must be held responsible and prosecuted. Prevention is of paramount importance.
A worrying phenomenon
Studies suggest that a significant minority of children in Europe, between 10 % and 20 %, are sexually assaulted during their childhood. This phenomenon is not decreasing and certain forms of sexual violence (like child pornography) are becoming a matter of growing concern. Fighting these crimes is very difficult. Children are vulnerable, and often ashamed and afraid to report any incidents. The Internet makes it easier to “groom” children (solicit children online for sexual purposes) or to produce and distribute child pornography. Children portrayed in pornography are getting younger and the images are becoming more graphic and more violent. Organised crime can make a considerable profit from it with little risk.
Increasing the level of protection through EU law
Following a proposal tabled by the Commission in March 2010, the Council and the European Parliament adopted on 13 December 2011 a Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, stepping up the fight against child sexual abuse.
The Directive is a comprehensive legal framework which covers investigation and prosecution of crimes, assistance to and protection of victims, and prevention.
The Directive makes it easier to fight crimes against children by acting on different fronts. It approximates the definition of 20 offences, sets minimum levels for criminal penalties, and facilitates reporting, investigation and prosecution. It extends national jurisdiction to cover abuse by EU nationals abroad, gives child victims easier access to legal remedies and includes measures to prevent additional trauma from participating in criminal proceedings. Offenders are to be subjected to risk assessments, and have access to special intervention programmes. Information on convictions and disqualifications are to circulate more easily among criminal records, making controls more reliable. The Directive prohibits advertising the possibility of abuse, or organising child sex tourism, and provides for education, awareness raising and training of officials.
A Directive is a legal instrument addressed to the Member States, which in turn have to implement its provisions in their national laws. The deadline for transposition of this directive was December 13, 2013.
On 16 December 2016, the Commission adopted two reports on the measures taken by Member States to combat the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography.
One report covers the entire Directive whereas the other report focuses on the measures against websites containing or disseminating child pornography (Article 25 of the Directive).
The reports present a first overview of measures taken by Member States to transpose the Directive into national law. The reports show that, although the Directive has led to substantial progress, there is still considerable room for improvement, in particular with regard to prevention and intervention programmes for offenders, the assistance, support and protection measures for child victims, the prompt removal of child sexual abuse material in Member States’ territory and the provision of adequate safeguards when the optional blocking measures are applied.
The Commission will continue working to support Member States in their implementation of effective measures against these crimes, to ensure that children benefit from the full added value of the Directive. These reports constitute a first step, which will be followed by the assessment of conformity of national measures with the Directive. Where necessary, the Commission will take appropriate action and make use of its enforcement powers under the Treaties.
We Protect Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online
The We Protect Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online is the result of the merger between the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online and We Protect.
The Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online was launched in 2012 by the European Commission and the US and it aimed to raise standards worldwide and unite efforts around the world to more effectively combat online sexual crimes against children. It gathered 54 countries, which committed to pursue concrete actions to enhance victim protection, identify and prosecute offenders, raise awareness, and reduce the availability of child pornography online and the re-victimization of children.
We Protect was created in 2014 in the UK as a global multi-stakeholder response to combating online child abuse and exploitation. Its participants were signatories to a global statement of action, to which 63 countries, 30 NGOs and 20 leading technology companies had already committed to.
The merged entity aims to combine the strengths of both initiatives while avoiding duplication of effort, maximising its global impact. It has unprecedented reach, with 70 countries already members of We PROTECT or the Global Alliance, along with major international organisations, 20 of the biggest names in the global technology industry, and 17 leading civil society organisations.
Besides creating a stronger legal framework, the Commission co-funds EU-wide awareness raising to empower children and their parents and educators.
The Commission also supports the INHOPE network of NGO-run hotlines in EU States that works in partnership with law enforcement and the internet industries and collects reports on child abuse websites so that they could be removed and investigated (previously funded under the Safer Internet Programme and currently under the Connecting Europe Facility).
The Commission has also funded projects targeting the online exchange of child abuse images and facilitation of live abuse. These include the European Financial Coalition, which brings together Internet providers, banks and payment system suppliers, NGOs, telecom companies, Europol, Eurojust and police and judicial authorities. The aim is to combat the production, distribution and sale of child pornography images on the Internet.
To improve the law enforcement response, the Commission supports the EMPACT policy cycle to coordinate action to fight child sexual abuse and continues subsidizing INTERPOL in enhancing global law enforcement cooperation in this area.