A call for an empowering, inclusive and safe digital environment for children

Side event, 28th session of the Human Rights Council, Monday 9 March 2015

On 9 March 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children organized a joint side event on new technologies and the rights of the child, based on their complementary thematic reports on the topic (A/HRC/28/56 and A/HRC/28/55).


The side event included presentations by the following panelists:


In her welcoming remarks, H.E. Ms. Elayne Whyte Gómez recalled that Costa Rica, as a country at the forefront of efforts to safeguard children’s online safety and protection, hosted the expert consultation on the topic organized by the SRSG in San José in June 2014, with the participation of the Vice President and the Minister of Technology of Costa Rica. In this regard, Ambassador Whyte Gómez recalled the proposal made at the expert meeting to create a platform to share best practices, and encouraged the SR and the SRSG to continue with their efforts to promote and strengthen a platform for dialogue in order to build bridges between policy at the national level and cooperation at the international level.

H.E. Ms. Karen Pierce stressed the commitment of the Government of the UK to stamp out child sexual exploitation on and offline through inter alia the set up in 2013 of the National Crime Agency, the introduction of new law enforcement resources, such as a Child Abuse Image Database, and partnership with industry and NGOs to remove child abuse material from the internet. However, Ambassador Pierce noted that national action is not enough and stressed the need for a coordinated global response. In this context, in December 2014, the UK Government hosted the WePROTECT Children Online Summit in London to tackle online sexual abuse and exploitation of children. The summit builds on existing initiatives, especially the Global Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Online, and secured commitments from 48 countries, 2 international organisations, 10 CSOs and 14 IT companies, which included the agreement to create an international network to stop abusers through the establishment with UNICEF of a new child protection fund. She announced that the UAE will host a second summit in November 2015 to put this initiative on a sustained global footing.

In her introductory remarks, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children, Ms. Marta Santos Pais, noted that connectivity is a fundamental human right since it enables children to learn, work, connect, experience cultural activities and become citizens of the world. However, she stressed that the development of ICTs took place so quickly that parents and teachers are overwhelmed to help children overcome the risks. Furthermore, more children use new technologies at a younger age. There is also a social factor since not everyone can afford the cost of connectivity, which leads to a digital divide and more risks associated with the misuse of ICTs. The SRSG noted that in order to avoid violence online it is possible to capitalize on strong international standards such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, and called for six urgent steps to achieve a safe online world for children, which include comprehensive legislation, training of professionals, child-sensitive counselling, reporting and complaint mechanisms, and research on the topic.

In her introductory remarks, Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Ms. de Boer-Buquicchio, stressed the need to develop comprehensive strategies which address both the opportunities and the risks that new technologies present for children. Her recommendations are targeted at ensuring that exploitative behavior against children is prevented, criminalized, investigated and prosecuted, and that child victims have access to remedy. The SR referred to new forms and trends of exploitative behaviour that are facilitated by ICTs, and the challenges that they present to normative frameworks, investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators. She mentioned the importance of detection, reporting and identification mechanisms to quantify cases, remove abuse material, rescue child victims and track down perpetrators. Moreover, she called for a strengthened and sustained international cooperation, with the involvement of the business sector.

Ms. Verónica Donoso presented conclusions of her research on how young children in Europe are engaging in online risks and how they should be protected. While presenting trends that have changed since 2010, she noted a rise in the following phenomena: cyber-bullying, especially against girls, meeting strangers, websites that encourage self-harm among children, and access to sexual abuse material. She noted that violent material receives less public attention than sexual material, though many children are particularly concerned about the former. Even though tablet and smartphone users are more likely to encounter risks, tablet users claim considerably more safety skills. Ms. Donoso stressed the need to give special attention to vulnerable groups, and noted that online and offline vulnerability are interrelated. She concluded that media literacy and education are essential to mitigate online risks, but also to fully take advantage of the opportunities that new technologies offer.

Mr. Nishit Kumar participated at the side event via video conference from Mumbai. He presented the work of Childline, an emergency phone outreach service for children in distress.

Their work is focused on prevention, protection and rehabilitation based on a child-friendly model that has already been replicated in numerous countries: a child in distress is physically reached within an hour, provided with SOS attention, and referred to services for long term rehabilitation. 12% of the interventions cover child abuse. The intervention services are provided through a network of social partnerships with NGOs across India and funded out of government grants. Mr. Kumar highlighted that one of the biggest challenge is linked to the changing telecom scenario in India, which cut off access to the most vulnerable children on the streets and those being trafficked. Childline is currently working on setting up hot-linked phone instruments in public spaces. Ms. Christiana Stephen, one of the 200 young volunteers of the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Programme of Childline India, described the sessions she conducts in schools, where she narrates age-appropriate stories for children between 6 and 12 and children with disabilities, so that they can identify and report risks. Parents are also the target of the programme, in particular, they help them recognize signs of sexual abuse.

Ms. Dorothy Rozga noted that the Internet has transformed the volume and nature of child sexual abuse material, and the pornographic images in circulation sustain a growing subculture where sexual exploitation of children is perceived as normal. Combating these crimes requires strong partnerships between governments, law enforcement agencies, the private sector and civil society. She recalled the significance of the WePROTECT Children Online Summit and the critical importance of follow-up on the Statements of Action and Pledges. Ms. Rozga noted that these initiatives are facing a chronic problem of under-investment.

She also stressed how ICTs have impacted on the achievement of the commitments made in the three World Congresses to stop child sexual exploitation. She highlighted the unfinished business remaining and the opportunities of the Post-2015 Development Agenda to agree on policies and investments targeting the end of violence against children.

Mr. Tomas Lamanauskas stressed that the emphasis should be placed on connection instead of just protection, and on empowerment instead of restriction, taking into account the opportunities provided by ICTs. He stressed the importance of engaging children, parents and teachers in the process. He referred to the Child Online Protection (COP) Initiative launched by ITU in 2008 with more than forty partners from civil society, international organizations and business sector to promote awareness and develop practical tools, and the work of the Working Group on Child Online Protection of ITU as an important global forum to convene all stakeholder groups to consider, deliberate on, review and formulate result-oriented activities on Child Online Protection. He also presented the guidelines for the industry and other sets of guidelines for parents and teachers produced by ITU. Finally, he invited all stakeholders to adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to transform partnerships into global and inclusive initiatives, and called for global targets on child online protection (starting with legislative frameworks and hotlines).

Ms. Clara Sommarin presented the guidelines for the industry that were produced together with ITU, as well as UNICEF’s broader work on combating online sexual abuse and exploitation of children, including the collaboration with the UK government on the child protection fund. She recalled the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 15th anniversary of its Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, and the 20th anniversary of the first World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children as a critical junction to address pending challenges. She stressed the need to translate international standards and political commitments into concrete action at both national and international levels in order to provide a balance between equal access to opportunities and protection from harm.

Mr. Mike Taylor provided details about the commitment of the UK to tackle online child sexual abuse and exploitation at the international level. He stressed the importance of capitalizing existing initiatives while ensuring follow-up of commitments made at the We#PROTECT Summit through a global programme of action. He stressed that partnerships with the industry and law enforcement enable to identify victims and investigate perpetrators from globally spread networks. In this regard, he noted that the coordination role of law enforcement agencies such as Interpol and Europol is central since they are enabling a global hub for cooperation.

During the discussion, participants raised the issue of restricting access to harmful material by children. Dr. Donoso warned about referring this responsibility solely to the industry while she also pointed out that restricting access to online content could also pose potential risks to the freedom of access to information. Therefore, she called for a balanced and empowering approach through education of all sides. In this respect, Dr. Donoso noted that the age, maturity, level of vulnerability, contexts of use as well as the type of content being dealt with must be taken into consideration when determining what is potentially harmful and what should/could be restricted for whom. Participants also raised concerns of new threats by terrorist groups operating online, and called for strategic plans to prevent such material from being available for children online.

In her concluding remarks, SR Maud de Boer-Buquicchio commended the panelists and attendants for sharing experiences and exchanging views on the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies, and encouraged all stakeholders to join efforts in a sustained and global manner to effectively combat online child sexual abuse and exploitation. SRSG Marta Santos Pais recalled the endless resilience shown by children and underlined the need for resources in order to move ahead in the process towards a safe, inclusive and empowering digital agenda for children.