Keynote speech of the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Cyprus, Ms Despo Michaelidou, at the UN General Assembly online session titled: “Online Sexual Violence and exploitation of children”
It is a great pleasure to address today’s General Assembly and to promote discussion on such an important topic. It is widely accepted that technology is rapidly reshaping children’s lives in multiple ways. The digital environment is constantly evolving and expanding and it provides opportunities for children to communicate and network, to develop relationships, to play and learn, to explore and innovate. Nowadays, there is an enormous number of tools, devices, applications and platforms in social media and digital spaces that can empower children to interact and develop. However, at the same time there are emerging challenges, since the digital environment can generate risks for children, including the exposure to threats, violence, exploitation and abuse, even beyond local and national boundaries.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has emphasised the states’ obligation to ensure that every child enjoys the full range of human rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that these rights should be fully respected, protected and fulfilled, as technology continues to develop. The Council of Europe has identified the rights of the child in the digital world as one of its priority areas, recognising that the internet should be an accessible, safe environment for children, without any discrimination.
The Ad Hoc Committee for the Rights of the Child (CAHENF) has pointed out that guidelines to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the child in the digital environment must take into serious consideration the fundamental principles and rights of the child, specifically the best interest of the child, his/her evolving capacities, the right to non-discrimination and the right to be heard.
Elaborating on these principles, it is essential to understand that, although the digital environment was not originally designed for children, it plays a significant role in children’s lives. States must ensure that, in all actions regarding the provision, regulation, design, management and use of the digital environment, the best interest of every child must be a primary consideration, in terms of their interactions, accessibility to information and protection from harm. Nevertheless, states should make every effort to balance, and wherever possible, reconcile a child’s right to protection with other rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression and information, as well as participation rights.
Opportunities provided by the digital environment play an increasingly crucial role in children’s development and may be vital for children’s life and survival, especially in situations of crisis. States should take all appropriate measures to protect children from risks to their life, survival and development. Stakeholders should identify and address the emerging risks that children face in diverse contexts, with particular attention to risks relating to sexual violence, exploitation and abuse. Whereas efforts should be undertaken to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of each and every child in the digital environment, targeted measures may be needed for children in vulnerable situations, recognising that the digital environment has the potential both to increase children’s vulnerability and to empower, protect and support them.
Furthermore, states and other relevant stakeholders should actively engage children to participate meaningfully in revising, implementing and evaluating legislation, policies, mechanisms and practices that aim to respect, protect and fulfil their rights in the digital environment. Children’s views should be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.
Children’s access to the digital environment should be carefully designed to secure that services and content are adequate and specifically intended for children. Meanwhile, connectivity and access should be accompanied by appropriate education and literacy measures, to ensure that online services and content are suitable, fair, transparent and available in child-friendly and age-appropriate language.
There are areas of concern in connection to the digital environment, including but not limited to, risks of harm from sexual exploitation and abuse, grooming, trafficking, harassment, dissemination of sexual images and other situations that may affect negatively the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of a child. Therefore, it is important for stakeholders to take precautionary, protection and awareness-raising measures, including a regular assessment of any risks of harm that the internet may pose to children’s health and overall development. It is important to establish effective systems of age-verification to ensure children’s protection from unsuitable material or services, but it is also crucial to implement drastic measures regarding child sexual abuse material. Law-enforcement authorities must establish mechanisms to identify and locate children subjected to sexual exploitation or abuse and also to identify perpetrators of crimes against children and to collect evidence required for criminal proceedings. It is also substantial to take effective measures to ensure that networks or online services are not misused for criminal or other unlawful purposes, in ways which may harm children, for example in relation to the production, distribution, advertising or storage of child sexual abuse material or other forms of online child abuse. At the same time, privacy and data protection must be seriously considered, in order to respect children’s personal and family life. Meanwhile, child-victims must be provided with immediate support and remedies in clear, accessible, affordable and child-friendly ways.
Despite the challenges that exist, children generally tend to admire the positive side of online opportunities. The European Network of Youth Advisers’ (ENYA) Forum has indicated the need to support children on how to benefit the most from the digital world and to perceive the internet as a vehicle through which children’s rights can be meaningfully progressed. Considering children’s views on this issue, the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) strongly encourages policymakers and stakeholders to take all the necessary steps to protect children from bullying, violence, exploitation and abuse in all forms in the digital world. In order for this to be achieved, it is necessary: a) to ensure the effectiveness of legislative, regulatory and other measures to combat the spread of online material and to impose robust sanctions for those who violate children’s rights online; b) to facilitate national and international co-ordination to address all forms of online grooming, abuse and exploitation, including commercial exploitation; c) to adopt innovative and future-proof policies to deal with emerging areas of sexual exploitation and abuse; d) to provide accessible and child-friendly information for children regarding ‘sexting’ and ensure that authorities respond in a child-centred manner; e) to provide support for children who have been affected by online bullying, harassment, violence, exploitation or abuse, including access to mental health services to aid recovery.
In order to respect children’s views, it is vital to ensure their meaningful participation when developing legislation, policies, programmes and training on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. States should involve children, listen to their needs and give due weight to their views. They should ensure that digital service providers actively engage with children, applying appropriate safeguards, and give their views due consideration when developing products and services.
In 2021, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (Committee) published the General Comment no.25 on Children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, according to which, states are advised to conduct awareness-raising campaigns and educational programmes for children, parents and caregivers, the general public and policymakers to enhance their knowledge of children’s rights in relation to the opportunities and risks associated with digital products and services. Such programmes should include information on how children can benefit from digital products and services and develop their digital literacy and skills, how to protect children’s privacy and prevent victimization and how to recognize a child who is a victim of harm perpetrated online or offline and respond appropriately. Such programmes should be informed by research and consultations with children, parents and caregivers. It must be noted that, stakeholders are required to undertake child rights impact assessments and disclose them to the public, with special consideration given to severe impacts of the digital environment on children. Thus, they should take appropriate steps to prevent, monitor, investigate and punish any action of child rights’ abuse.
Furthermore, the Committee has pointed out that pandemic and other crises, may lead to an increased risk of harm online, given that children spend more time on virtual platforms in those circumstances. Sexual offenders may use digital technologies to solicit children for sexual purposes, whereas, digitally-facilitated violence and sexual exploitation and abuse may also be perpetrated within a child’s circle of trust, by family or friends. In some cases, this may result in self-harming, eating disorders, suicidal behaviours or other negative actions. In such situations, states are required to pursue safeguarding and restorative justice approaches where children have carried out such actions.
Ideally, digital literacy must be taught in schools, as part of compulsory education curricula, including the knowledge and skills to safely handle a wide range of digital tools and resources. It should promote awareness among children of the possible adverse consequences of exposure to risks relating to sexual violence, exploitation and abuse, as well as develop strategies to reduce harm, to protect their personal data and to strengthen children’s social and emotional skills and resilience. I also support the view that, in cases of peer-to-peer online violence or abuse, the states should pursue suitable and adequate preventive and restorative approaches, while preventing the criminalisation of children, as far as possible. Nevertheless, education has an important role to promote violence-free attitudes in a democratic society.
Children will continue to grow up with technology and the internet in their lives. In their digitally-oriented childhood they will continue to face challenges and risks, as well as opportunities. As such, respecting, promoting and fulfilling human rights in the digital age must be a primary concern for everyone who is in charge for protecting and promoting children’s rights.
I am optimistic that all relevant stakeholders will take advantage of this opportunity for empowerment and to collaborate towards the implementation of effective action plans, both at national and international level. The creation of high-quality standards and code of conduct in the digital era, will have a long-term benefit for children and for every human being.
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