Child sexual abuse has always existed: but the 21st century environment has radically changed the opportunities available to paedophiles and other perpetrators to target and harm children.
The Council of Europe had already criminalised grooming – and was the first to do so – in its pioneering “Lanzarote Convention”, adopted in 2007, which deals with children being harmed in face-to-face meetings with adults first encountered online. But perpetrators, like chameleons, appear to adapt effortlessly to the new technologies – social media, chatrooms, gaming. The law is forever running to catch up.
That is why the Council of Europe has decided to go further, by issuing new guidelines to tackle evolving forms of online grooming.
The new text provides the countries which have ratified the Lanzarote Convention – 36 so far – with a framework to enable them to protect children from abuse committed exclusively online, where no physical meeting with the abuser has taken place.
These countries are already obliged to put in place laws which privilege the child’s best interests, prevent sexual violence, protect victims and prosecute offenders. Child-friendly judicial proceedings and screening and training for everyone working with children are required, as well as helplines and education programmes to warn children about the dangers of “hyper-sexualisation”.
The Lanzarote Convention was the first international legal text to go beyond sexual exploitation of children for commercial aims – prostitution, trafficking and pornography – and to also cover sexual abuse within the child’s “circle of trust”; their immediate and extended family or close social surroundings, including staff and volunteers in child-care centres and schools. This is vital; in 70 to 85% of cases, children know their abuser well.
The protection of children against sexual abuse in the circle of trust will be the focus of the first monitoring report on the Convention, to be adopted in the next months. What we already know is that the laws in some countries do not clearly protect all children from this type of abuse. This needs to change; every child aged up to and including 18 must be protected.
Grooming and the sexual abuse of children through information and communication technologies and sexual abuse of children in the circle of trust were two of the key issues discussed last week in Strasbourg, at a high-level Council of Europe and United Nations meeting on protecting children from sexual violence. The third was the need to strengthen international cooperation. On all three points participants underlined the importance of the Council of Europe’s standards.
Our Lanzarote Convention promotes international cooperation on all three issues. Harmonisation, the sharing of data and common solutions, better protection and preventative measures deter paedophiles and other offenders from playing the system by exploiting loopholes in different countries to avoid prosecution. For instance, sex tourists can be prosecuted, under the Convention, on their return home.
The Council of Europe has just created a European Day against the Sexual Abuse of Children, to be marked for the first time on 18 November 2015. Let’s use this occasion to bring Europe’s national laws into line with the Lanzarote Convention and for the remaining 11 Council of Europe member states to ratify. Child sexual abuse passes from generation to generation, ruining not just childhoods, but whole lives, poisoning victims’ intimate relationships, their health and even their professional confidence. Let’s break this cycle.