ECPAT Belgium joins other members of the ECPAT network in an urgent call for the protection of children in Ukraine, as children are always the first victims of conflicts.
London, UK – 1 December 2018 – Campaign groups say that proposed changes to European Union laws that govern Internet privacy could make it more difficult to identify online child sexual abuse imagery, which in the long-term could hamper efforts to track offenders and rescue victims.
More than 30 child rights NGOs, including ECPAT International and eight ECPAT member groups from across the European Union, want the wording of the draft Regulation on Privacy and Electronic Communications (e-Privacy Regulation) currently under consideration in Brussels, to be changed before it is adopted. In a letter to EU President Junkers, Vice President Ansip, and the Austrian Presidency of the EU, they warn that the new rules in their current form are likely to seriously endanger the safety and well-being of children. They argue that the proposed regulation will make it difficult for businesses to deploy software that detects this kind of material in online traffic – so it can be flagged and removed – and are asking EU ministers for a specific exemption so that this type of technology can still legally operate.
“Technology, such as Microsoft PhotoDNA and similar applications are currently used by businesses and network providers across the EU,” says Robbert van den Berg, Executive Director of ECPAT. “These programmes enable businesses to locate child sex abuse imagery on their systems so it can be reported to appropriate authorities, such as law enforcement, and deleted from servers. In the last few years, this technology has found and removed tens of millions of images, thwarting offenders and preventing the re-victimization of children. The draft regulation threatens to withdraw the permissible use of this successful technology and further imperil the victims of this crime.”
Many EU businesses currently use PhotoDNA and similar software on a voluntary basis to rid their networks of child sex abuse material. However, this will change if the new e-Privacy Regulation is adopted. The regulation is due to go before an EU ministerial meeting for discussion on 3 and 4 December.
“It is way beyond the capacity of law enforcement agencies to address the volumes now circulating online,” cautions the letter. “Police in all parts of the world have therefore repeatedly called on the private sector to do more to help, and they are committed to and playing their role. Deploying applications like PhotoDNA is exactly the kind of thing they have in mind. Yet the e-Privacy Regulation appears to threaten this wholly beneficial status quo. We are at a loss to understand why the EU feels it is necessary to step-in and disrupt effective and established practices which self-evidently work so well.”
8.7 million images identified
In October Facebook indicated that in the third quarter of this year, PhotoDNA and comparable products helped it identify 8.7 million images that breached its child nudity policy and most of this content was removed before anyone even saw it. In the past, Google has also indicated that 99 percent of all the illegal content it removed from its services had first been identified using this technology. Similarly, the US based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently said it is on track to receive more than 20 million reports of illegal child sex abuse images by the end of 2018, with the overwhelming majority of that imagery detected because of technology companies’ use of PhotoDNA. Indeed, PhotoDNA has helped or will help find some 99 percent of this material.
However, the use of PhotoDNA and similar software would be banned in the EU under the proposed new ePrivacy Regulation. If these new rules are passed, customers would have to be asked for ‘consent’ before certain types of information can be accessed by service providers – an unworkable prospect in the context of illegal child sexual abuse imagery.
“It is ridiculous to imagine that child sex offenders would be willing to give their consent to being monitored,” says John Carr, senior advisor to ECPAT. “Adopting this regulation would be a huge gaffe for children’s rights. I’m sure the drafters did not intend to outlaw, reduce or limit the scope for companies to deploy these tools to identify child sex abuse material. We need to put this right.”
Could affect all EU Member States
The proposed laws would affect all EU Member States unless they individually decide to derogate from the new rules, which ECPAT says would inevitably lead to a patchwork of national laws.
“This makes no sense at all when dealing with international platforms,” says Carr. “The current arrangements are working well. They should leave them alone. I suspect that the current sloppy wording in the proposed regulation was written by someone who did not think it through. Any confusion surrounding the use of PhotoDNA and similar technology could be rapidly and easily cleared up.”
The regulation (the full name of which is: Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the respect for private life and the protection of personal data in electronic communications and repealing Directive 2002/58/EC”) is intended to apply to all businesses providing online communication services that use online tracking technologies, or that engage in electronic direct marketing. It would repeal a previous directive from 2002 and is meant to complement the recently passed General Data Protection Regulation.
Yes, in a judgment of 25 September last, the Brussels Court of First Instance sentenced a man for rape of a minor, without the author having had any physical contact with his victim, the abuse taking place by means of a webcam. A verdict that will hopefully set a precedent because it sweeps away the idea that rape cannot be committed “at a distance”, as is the case with new technologies.
1. A progressive interpretation of the offence of rape
In this case, the defendant required the 15-year-old girl to self-penetrate in front of a webcam. There was therefore no physical contact between the author and his victim. But if we look more closely, the fact that the sexual act is committed by one person against another is not a constituent element of the offence of rape. What is, however, is that there is an act of sexual penetration on a person who does not consent to it. The sexual act here is indisputable: the girl has practiced digital self-penetration. And at no time did she consent to it. The documents in the file show the blackmail, insults and threats made against the victim if he refused. The Brussels Court of First Instance rightly found the author guilty of rape. By reminding that physical contact between the abuser and the abused is not necessary to commit rape, the judgment therefore gives an evolving interpretation of the offence. But it does more. By mentioning that the author “cowardly sheltered” behind Facebook’s anonymity, the court insists on the perversity of the acts committed via new technologies. Far from considering online sexual abuse as a less serious version of those committed “in real life”, this decision erases a boundary that is too often established between the “real” and “virtual” world. It should be recalled that materials representing the sexual abuse of children, such as those that the victim was forced to produce, are first and foremost evidence of a material, very real act. Etienne Wery, a specialist in digital law, says nothing else: “A few years ago, it was regrettable that when it came to IT, the damage was also often considered virtual. But when you see the victims, it is often a life to be rebuilt and the suffering is not virtual. Now the judges recognize this.
2. The new faces of child sexual exploitation
Indeed, underestimating the impact of new technologies on the sexual abuse of minors misses one of the most important aspects of cybercrime. Every day, millions of materials representing child sexual abuse circulate on the Internet. Produced by adults, but also by children/adolescents. In its latest report, EUROPOL identifies this “self-produced” content as one of the greatest cybercriminal threats. How do these devices end up on the Net? Because teenagers do sexting, that is, they exchange sexual pictures. These private materials can nevertheless be found on social networks, through negligence, malice, revenge, etc. Cybercriminals and cyber predators are also masters in manipulation. They have all the “tricks” to win the trust of minors and make them stage themselves. When these “self-produced” materials are used as a means of blackmail to obtain other photos or money, it is called sextortion. This is exactly what the above-mentioned author did when he threatened his victim to perform certain sexual acts. If the sole and only responsible for these sexual abuses remain their sponsors, let us not forget the importance of equipping children from an early age with the tools for the responsible use of new technologies. This is exactly the objective of the (Dé)clic project, which is participatory, innovative and sustainable, and places young people at the centre of their own prevention. Because, however important the case law of the Brussels Court may be, the important thing is that the acts do not take place.
For several weeks, critics have been hovering around Petit Paul, a comic book created by Bastien Vivès. This adult book tells the story of a 10-year-old boy whose particularity is that he has an oversized sex. Although he is not of sexual age, the main character “systematically finds himself in impossible and embarrassing situations“.
Because it illustrates extremely explicit sexual acts between a minor boy and adult women, this comic book rightly shocked many readers. Immediately, a petition was launched to remove it from sales. She adds: “The book is supposed to be humorous, and it seems delicate to us to laugh at a scene that glorifies child abuse, a subject that is unfortunately far too topical.”
It should be noted that in the meantime, two renowned French bookshops (Cultura and Gilbert Joseph) have already decided not to sell the book anymore. This is not the case for supermarkets such as Amazon….
Is it an illegal work?
Yes ! the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by France, prohibits the sale and access to materials representing the sexual abuse of children*, defined as “any representation, by any means whatsoever, of a child engaged in explicit sexual activities”.
Who would dare claim that Little Paul comics escapes this category? She who shows, among other things, the child forced to cunnilingus to his teacher or a position “69” with his judo teacher?
Faced with the accusations, Glénat, the book’s publisher, defends itself: “This work of fiction was never intended to de-dramatize, promote or legitimize the abuse of minors in any way whatsoever. It is a caricature whose drawing, deliberately grotesque and outrageous in its proportions, leaves no doubt as to the totally unrealistic nature of the character and his environment.
Is it not cynical or naive to judge that the “grotesque” nature of the comic book or the “totally unrealistic” nature of the character does not “de-dramatize” or “legitimize” child sexual abuse?
And hypocritical to be surprised by the controversy when the prefect and collection director of Petit Paul is none other than Céline Tran, alias Katsuni, a former pornographic actress.
Let us not underestimate the impact
Apart from the illegal nature of the book, depicting a child in sexual acts with an adult is never insignificant. This helps to normalize the fact that a minor may be an adult’s sexual partner.
What if the child doesn’t resist, like Little Paul? To assume a child’s consent, because he or she does not resist, is to ignore years of research in trauma. The latter show that a victim of sexual abuse’s lack of reaction may result from the state of paralysis in which he or she finds himself or herself. This “apparent consent” is in fact a survival reflex!
By depicting sexual relationships between a child and an adult, Petit Paul normalizes these relationships that should not be, sweeping away the fact that a child his age is legally considered incapable of giving his consent to these acts. This is extremely misleading and dangerous.
Moreover, by endowing his 10-year-old hero with a disproportionate sex, the author endorses and reinforces the hypersexualization of our society, by which minors are potential sexual objects. From there to think that the child is seeking, or even provoking the sexual act, there is only one step that some people take happily. It is therefore important not to underestimate the impact that works of fiction with an apparently “grotesque” and “unrealistic” character of the Petit Paul type can have.
*ECPAT Belgium avoids using the term “child pornography”, which could suggest that acts are consented to by trivializing them. We prefer the term “materials representing child sexual abuse”, in accordance with the Luxembourg Guidelines.
On February, the 9th 2018, newspapers started disclosing allegations affecting Oxfam UK: after the earthquake in Haiti (2010), aid workers allegedly paid to have sex with young local women, perhaps minors. What Oxfam is being blamed for is not so much its employees’ behaviour – no NGO being immune to a breach of its Code of conduct – but the way these facts were handled.
An isolated case?
Even after firing the three employees involved, Oxfam repeatedly refused to prosecute them. Just as serious, Oxfam did not immediately forward the allegations to the Haitian authorities. In addition, the former incriminated employees were hired by other organizations without them being warned of their suspicious actions. This was the case of the Belgian citizen Roland van Hauwermeiren, who was then employed by Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh.
This disclosure had an impact on the whole organization. For instance, the European Commission threatened to withdraw its funding, which amounted to 68 million euros in 2017. Desmond Tutu resigned from his role as ambassador, admitting that he was “deeply disappointed”. Oxfam immediately responded through the unveiling of its “plan of action” to prevent further sexual abuse. Among the announced measures are: the establishment of an independent commission, an increased investment in protection programs and training on gender issues, the establishment of a strategy on the management of allegations of sexual abuse as well as an improved cooperation with local authorities. Additionally, the NGO invites victims to “come forward”.
Unfortunately, the case of Oxfam in Haiti is far from isolated. Well before these revelations, many cases of child sexual exploitation by humanitarian staff have been reported (peacekeepers, UNHCR, etc.). Since the so-called “Oxfamgate”, other NGOs announced having faced such abuses: Doctors without Borders, Plan International Nederland, UNICEF, Red Cross… Nevertheless, it remains difficult to evaluate the extent of the phenomenon. Beyond “shaming and blaming“, the case of Oxfam must first and foremost call into question the practices of humanitarian actors. In the wake of the #metoo movement, there is a real call to action on the improvement of child protection mechanisms.
ECPAT Belgium’s standpoint
As the Belgian member of the international ECPAT network, we have been fighting against the sexual exploitation of children for more than 25 years. ECPAT Belgium hopes to draw the attention of all actors on the need to improve child protection in the humanitarian sector, in particular regarding vulnerable children. In our opinion, discussing the Oxfam case is not meant to fuel the controversy but serves as an open door to a long-term change in the approach.
ECPAT’s work of preventing, listening and mobilising is a first step towards the elimination of child sexual abuse. However, organisations like ours cannot fulfil this daunting mission alone. Every entity must take the necessary measures, internal or external. Because of the nature of their work, humanitarian organisations are given access to vulnerable minors, and therefore have a duty to protect them. Turning a blind eye to potential situations carries the risk to build a culture of impunity.
Such measures should start with the establishment of clear Child Rights Policies within each organisation, signed by all members (including employees and volunteers) and disseminated from top to bottom-rank. These policies should systematically consider child participation, in particular when organisations are conducting research. In accordance with Bharti Patel, CEO of ECPAT UK, they must include complaint and reporting procedures. Their implementation must be exercised with due diligence and monitoring. These measures should also ensure that all the children with whom the organisations are (in)direct contact are safe. They should also define which behaviour is appropriate or not.
Additionally, each contract – may it be long or short-term, volunteering – should always carry an addendum on child rights. Hiring should not take place without a criminal record check (e.g. via a judiciary record sample). It is unacceptable that, in 2018, hiring may still take place even though the employee is potentially known as sex offender.
While having proper safeguarding procedures is paramount, it is not enough. Prevention measures are also essential, as well as a focus on disseminating information. Abuses can be prevented through awareness raising efforts, systematic checks and balances when hiring, and the respect of existing prohibitions.
It is the duty of the organisations, but also of governmental structures, to review every allegation and to inform the competent authorities. In order to be prosecuted, offenders must be reported in the first place. Besides passing on the information to the competent authories, organisations should also take the nessecary internal measures to remove and punish offenders.
While prosecuting perpetrators must remain a priority, we must, above all, help prevent children from being abused in the first place. Therefore, ECPAT Belgium calls for a global and multidisciplinary approach. Beyond scandals, investigations, prosecutions and the presumption of innocence, a child’s right to protection comes first and foremost. In our fight for transparency, let’s not forget them.
- Establish clear Child Rights Policies that are signed by every member, employee or volunteer. Take children’s best interest and opinions into account when drafting such policies. Disseminate them throughout the organisation, from top to bottom-rank.
- Have all staff members signing an addendum to the contract stating their respect of children’s rights.
- Establish accessible complaint and reporting procedures.
- Have a clear Code of conduct and define what behaviours are (in)appropriate when in contact with children. Train the staff to ensure a common understanding of this Code.
- Undergo a systematic check and balances when hiring as well as a criminal record check, even for volunteers.
- Review every allegation reported to the organisation.
- Report to local authorities and sanction every substantiated breach of existing rules.
- Conduct awareness raising sessions as well as preventive tools on the issue of sexual exploitation of children.
Practical steps when facing a potential case of abuse:
Emmanuelle Vacher for ECPAT Belgium
 Every suspicious situation can be reported on www.reportchildsextourism.org.
“Dominic would like a family who would support him. He would love to cook for his new family, and he would like to be the youngest or only child. And here is Sabey. Sabey would like to be adopted by a traditional family, with two parents and other kids”. These product-like descriptions are spelled out by a middle-aged woman, standing at the back of a long catwalk. She holds a microphone in her hands and smiles at the audience. Her aim today is to manage to sell at least one child.
Meet the Kids is a United-States adoption agency. A “re-homing” agency. The word re-homing is traditionally used when pets’ owners cannot or do not want to keep their cat or dog and decide to find a new home for them. In cases like those of Dominic and Sabey, children are the “family members” being re-homed. Indeed, most of these young people have already been adopted and abandoned several times. They were “returned” to the agency, most of the time without any explanation. There, they parade in front of a crowd of parents seeking to adopt. The adults can pick up the boy or girl they like the most. Children are gauged by appearance. If lucky, they will get a chance to talk for a few minutes with one of the couples. Then, the procedure is a formality. In the United States, it takes three days of training for parents to adopt and a quick appointment with an attorney to get rid of an adopted child.
This ultraliberal “adoption market” comes with consequences: one in four adoptions is canceled in the United States. Every year, 25.000 children are sent back to social services or re-homed. The procedure seems perfectly legal: these children can be endlessly re-homed until they turn 18. Like Meets the Kids, several agencies have specialized in this field. They use speed-dating methods, parades, catalogues or online advertisements. For “second-hand” children to be more attractive, adoption agencies decrease the fees.
Even more worrisome, a parallel trade developed using social networks or underground websites for parents to directly sell the child they regret adopting to another family online. For instance, 12 years-old Mike was sold for $200 online. He had stayed in his adoptive family for four years, along with his sister. Eventually, the family decided to “privately re-home” him, therefore separating the siblings. In most cases, adopting a child online is for free. Sometimes, it even is a way to claim a tax deduction and draw government benefits. Offers include pictures of very young children (most of them aged from 6 to 14) smiling. They come with captions such as “this handsome boy, Rick, was placed from India a year ago and is obedient and eager to please” or “I am totally ashamed to say it but we do truly hate this boy!”. On one of these pages, a couple gave up a 4-years-old boy they adopted because “his feet were too big and his ears looked funny”. Reuteurs conducted an in-depth analysis of these message boards and noticed that, on average, a child is advertised there once a week. The youngest to be “re-homed” online was 10 months old.
Sadly, these “disposable” children do not only attract desperate couples but are an easy prey for sexual predators. The infamous Eason case serves as an evidence. Nicole and Calvin Eason, an Illinois couple, spent years replying to advertisements online. Every time, they were eager to take the boy or girl available for re-adoption, even though the child had often been diagnosed with behavioral problems.
Quita was one of them. The teenager, adopted from Liberia, had been a struggle for her first adoptive family. She had been diagnosed with attachment issues, depression and post-traumatic disorders. When her “parents” decided to give her away for free, Nicole Eason (also known as Big Momma) got in touch with them and assured she knew how to take care of “difficult children”. No attorneys or officials were involved in the procedure. The parents and the Easons simply signed a notarized statement declaring that the latter were Quita’s new family. Quick, easy and wonderful. Except for the fact that Nicole Eason’s biological children had been taken away years earlier, when she was described as having “severe psychiatric problems as well as violent tendencies”. In fact, a few years earlier, Nicole had taken in a 10-year-old-boy while she was living with a man who is now serving 20 years in federal prison for trading child pornography. Quita confessed that she had to join them in their bed every night. According to her, Nicole was naked. Promptly, the Easons stopped responding to the first family’s attempts to check on Quita. She never showed up at school. The authorities were alerted and found out information that should have prevented the Easons from taking custody of the girl if officials had been involved. After weeks, they managed to find Quita who testified that the Easons had child pornography in their house. However, neither New York State Police or Illinois authorities took legal action to prevent the Easons from taking another child, which happened soon after with little Anne Barnes.
Quita’s case is far from isolated. All sorts of abuse have been reported by child victims of this system. “Speaking publicly about her experience for the first time, one girl adopted from China and later sent to a second home said she was made to dig her own grave. Another re-homed child, a Russian girl, recounted how a boy in one house urinated on her after the two had sex; she was 13 at the time”. Re-homed children often are adopted from foreign overseas countries, and do not speak English, therefore being especially vulnerable to exploitation. No laws, in the United States, acknowledge the existence of re-homing. An agreement exists, that was passed among 50 states called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children. It requires that if a child is to be transferred to a new family in a different state, parents notify the authorities. However, the Compact is far from well-known and each state is let to enforce it. Additionally, sanctions are not systematically attached to potential violations. No authority is tracking what happens to a child adopted overseas when brought to America. Consequently, some countries have made adoptions by Americans difficult or have banned them (e.g. Russia, that was never satisfied with the follow-up they had on children adopted from them). This decreased the number of foreign-born children adopted into the United States, but has been a pull-factor towards underground networks.
The US government fails to protect children of adoptions from disruption. Worse: it fails to protect them from trafficking and sexual abuse. In Belgium, a child given for adoption may be adopted by a foreigner, including by Americans. Therefore, an US citizen could adopt a Belgian child, and risk exposing him/her this horrific re-homing system.
Emmanuelle Vacher for ECPAT Belgium
On 9 and 10 December 2013, the second meeting of the EU Civil Society Platform against Trafficking in Human Beings has taken place in Brussels. The Platform is a forum for civil society organisations to engage at the EU level, exchange experiences and enhance coordination and cooperation amongst key actors.
Over 100 civil society organisations from 26 Member States plus NGOs from neighbouring priority third countries (Albania, Morocco, Turkey and Ukraine) participated. Katlijn Declercq represented ECPAT International.
Source: EU Commission
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L’assemblée générale d’ECPAT Belgique s’est tenue le 27 septembre dernier, en présence de Mark Capaldi, Head of Research and Policy chez ECPAT International. Il a présenté le travail d’ECPAT International, ses défis et ses perspectives pour les années à venir.
Copyright ECPAT Belgique « Stop à l’exploitation sexuelle commerciale des enfants »