Tackling the demand for the sexual exploitation of children

Side event, 31st session of the Human Rights Council,  7 March 2016

On 7 March 2016, in the framework of the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography organized a side event, with the support of the Council of Europe and the Permanent Mission of Lithuania, on tackling the demand for the sexual exploitation of children. The side event was organized in the context of the presentation of the thematic report of the Special Rapporteur (A/HRC/31/58) to the Human Rights Council.

In the introductory remarks, the Special Rapporteur underlined that the aim of the report was to provide a broad strategy for the eradication of the demand for the sexual exploitation of children. It was crucial to pay attention to every actor who facilitates or cooperates in the sexual exploitation of children, as well as the environment in which the sexual exploitation of children is either ignored, tolerated or even accepted. The Special Rapporteur identified the current challenges in facing the issue: the lack of disaggregated data, the gaps in legislation, and the lack of cooperation in implementing international and regional standards. They highlighted the necessity to fight impunity, provide redress to victims, and eventually eradicate this problem.


The event included distinguished presentations by the following panellists:

  • H.E. Rytis Paulauskas, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Lithuania to the UN and other International Organizations in Geneva
  • Ms. Regina Jensdóttir, Head of the Children’s Rights Division, Council of Europe Coordinator on the Rights of the Child, Council of Europe
  • Mr. Michael Moran, Assistant Director, Vulnerable Communities, INTERPOL
  • Ms. Laura F. Kuhle, Institute for Sexology and Sexual Medicine, Universitätsklinikum Charité Berlin
  • Ms. Eliana Riggio, Consultant, ECPAT International
  • Ms. Margaret Akullo, Project Coordinator, Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section, UNODC
  • Ms. Becky Foreman, Director, UK Government Affairs, Microsoft


H.E. Mr. Rytis Paulauskas provided opening remarks on the right of every child to live without violence. He underlined the importance of promoting the sharing of information about safety measures which should target children who needed to be aware of the risks as well as the preventive actions they have to take. H.E. Paulauskas highlighted the vulnerability of migrant children, who face new challenges related to registration procedures, and the need to support and protect them. He also underlined the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by UN peacekeepers, often against children, and the need to provide a consistent and systematic response, implementing different measures to prevent these acts. He welcomed the steps undertaken by the Secretary General and his decision to set up an External Independent Review Panel to examine the UN’s handling of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse which had submitted recommendations on how to respond to such abuses. H.E. Paulauskas stressed the need to not remain passive. Tackling the demand for the sexual exploitation of children required broad collaboration with partnerships involving UN agencies, NGOs and civil society, including children themselves.

Ms. Regina Jensdóttir presented the Council of Europe legal framework on this issue, underlining the dynamisms of the instruments, which were capable of adapting to the ongoing and ever-changing developments of crime and ways of tackling them. Moreover, these instruments are not exclusively reserved for Council of Europe member states, but they are open to the world. Ms. Jensdóttir presented the content of these legal instruments, namely: (i) the Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (Lanzarote Convention); (ii) the Convention on Cybercrime; (iii) the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. She underlined how the Lanzarote Convention enables the prosecution of citizens who commit crimes abroad, leaving no room for impunity. In these Conventions, the demand factor is at the centre of the criminalization process. They target the offender but also the other relevant actors involved in the crime, thereby considerably discouraging the demand. Moreover, they also focus on the protection of victims. Furthermore, through the Internet, children are not only abused, but often manipulated to provide self-produced pornographic material. Ms. Jensdóttir noted how the cooperation with private corporations is a key factor in fighting this phenomenon. Tackling the demand for the sexual exploitation of children is possible with effective means, such as the implementation, monitoring and updating of the existing Conventions. Moreover, the Council of Europe already produced materials for children, such as a version of the Lanzarote Convention for children, in order to help them prevent sexual abuses.

Mr. Michael Moran started his intervention by stressing the importance of collaboration between the different agencies and organizations. Progress has been achieved in the law enforcement sector and especially in three key areas: (i) investigation, against offenders and producers or possessors of online material; (ii) prevention, with an increased awareness that prevention is better, and cheaper, than having to remedy to situations; (iii) victim identification, keeping in mind that behind any material of sexual exploitation found online there is a child being abused. The law enforcement sector has to be innovative and find new ways to prevent the demand. From the technological point of view, Mr. Moran underlined the important role played by the Industry in the fundamental aspect of removing the existing material from the web, by blocking, for example, webpages. He highlighted the importance that when pages are blocked, it has to be made very clear, through messages and notices, that the material removed constituted child sexual abuse and exploitation. There is also the need to acknowledge that within societies there exist individuals with sexual interests in children. To prevent them from becoming offenders, registers should be implemented. It is crucial to explain their aim to society at large, so potential sex offenders can reach out to management officers, before committing these crimes. He also underlined the necessity for States to ensure the availability of treatments for offenders, acknowledging the fact that risk reduction is the only way forward. Mr. Moran concluded by highlighting the importance of international cooperation, which is essential in moving information quickly across countries. Finally, honesty should be at the heart of all these endeavours: we need to acknowledge that this phenomenon takes place, in order to be able to speak about it and address it in the correct way.


Ms. Laura F. Kuhle presented the Project Dunkelfeld, which began in Berlin in 2005 and now encompasses several project sites all over Germany. She presented data about the prevalence rate of child sexual abuse in Europe and in Germany, noting that most of the abuse goes undetected.  She then underlined the difference between the sexual preference for children and child sexual abuse as sexual behaviour. The sexual preference for children is not chosen but increases the risk of child sexual victimization. The risk of detected child sexual abuse re-offenses in paedophilic offenders is high. In addition, the vast majority of the offenders or users of child abuse images is undetected by the judicial system. Undetected paedophiles and hebephiles are an important target group for therapeutic interventions in order to prevent child sexual abuse and child abuse image offending. However, there are only a few qualified and willing therapeutic treatments offered and mandatory reporting laws create an environment in which at-risk individuals are unlikely to report voluntarily. In Germany, a prevention network comprising 10 additional project sites all over the country was created and standards of care were developed and evaluated1.  Several media campaigns were launched which promoted the assurance of therapeutic confidentiality. Ms. Kuhle presented data about the numbers of participants in the Prevention Project Dunkelfeld and the stages within the treatment process (clinical interview, risk-assessment, psycho-education, evaluation, group or single therapy, and after-care). The therapy rationale is that the sexual preference is a lifelong condition and therefore treatment aims at the gradual development of self-regulation skills and behaviour control. Finally, she presented the results of the first preliminary treatment evaluation. It demonstrated that the treatment can successfully reduce dynamic risk factors for child sexual offending, as well as the frequency and severity of child sexual abuse and child abuse image offending. In conclusion, successful treatment of offenders should begin at an early stage and it should take place on various levels, treating the individual and enhancing external inhibitors.

Ms. Eliana Riggio delivered a presentation about the work of ECPAT International “towards a preventive strategy to tackle sexual exploitation of children.” She underlined that ECPAT is committed to promoting a conceptual shift in child protection policy and programming from a prevailing curative to a more explicitly preventive approach to ensure that children are protected before being harmed, while potential offenders are prevented from fuelling the demand. One experience, in particular, has been exceptionally successful in experimenting preventive methodologies and has set out a path that the child protection sector may follow. With the objective of fulfilling the universal human right to health, the Primary Healthcare movement, which stemmed from the public health sector, has succeeded in replacing a merely clinical approach with an epidemiological philosophy by building health shields aimed to defend entire groups potentially at risk, rather than simply treating single individuals already affected by a disease.

ECPAT International seeks to develop the tenets of a possible “Protection for All” model based on the progress made by the Primary Healthcare methodology in promoting Health for All over the last decades. A Primary Protection Model to protect children from all form of sexual violence should encompass: (i) primary prevention, aiming to prevent demand for sexual exploitation of children before it occurs; (ii) secondary prevention, aiming to prevent demand for sexual exploitation of children in high-risk groups; (iii) tertiary prevention, aiming to prevent further sexual exploitation of children through interventions targeting child victims and offenders. There is an urgent need to eradicate the demand tree from its roots and ECPAT’s global network seeks to achieve this goal through a variety of activities, such as raising awareness and spreading education and information, supporting gender transformative processes, promoting rights-sensitive norms and practices, targeting hot-spots, leveraging the Internet, developing comprehensive strategies, strengthening legal measures, engaging and listening to young people and victims. In concluding, Ms. Riggio cited concrete examples from the field, recalling the impact made by initiatives implemented by the ECPAT network in various regions of the world.


Ms. Margaret Akullo presented examples of UNODC’s Regional and Global Programmes focussing on interventions that address the sexual exploitation of children in South East Asia through the strengthening of legislation and improving law enforcement capacity to investigate and prosecute child sex offenders. UNODC has developed training materials for criminal justice officials in order to equip them with the knowledge needed to combatting child sex offending.  In addition, UNODC, in partnership with government authorities, undertook a review of the legislative frameworks for Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam to ensure that domestic legislative frameworks met international standards for prosecuting offences related to sexual abuse of children by sex offenders.  The legal report2 considers a number of questions, for example, the status of ratification of key international instruments, criminalization and penalties for conduct relating to child sex tourism, child protection measures in the criminal justice process and whether the possession of child sexual abuse material is criminalized.  Recommendations have included options to criminalize the possession of child pornography for personal use, and options to criminalize conduct where adults groom children for the purpose of sexual exploitation.  UNODC continues to work with South East Asian countries on the implementation of these recommendations, for example supporting the drafting of laws that criminalize these offences. Ms. Akullo presented the case of Thailand, where, in December 2015, the Criminal Code became effective and provides for a definition of child pornography and the criminalization of mere possession of child sexual abuse.  An important challenge nonetheless remains: the lack of understanding among criminal justice officials about the new law and the sexual exploitation of children in general. For this reason, UNODC is preparing training material to be included in the training courses of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. Ms. Akullo also showed the results of a survey on perceptions carried out in different countries, with law enforcement officers, which suggested that training on the prevention and the protection of children is still needed.

Ms. Becky Foreman started her statement by underling the commitment of her company to protect children online, something which Microsoft has been doing for the last two decades. The need now is to focus on technology, education and partnerships. There is a responsibility for companies to build effective software, to implement internal policies and standards that go beyond pure legal requirements, keeping as a priority the safety of children.They need to be educated about how to protect themselves, together with their families and for these reasons partnering with other organizations and agencies is fundamental. Microsoft first became aware of this problem in 2003 and began by investing one million dollars. In 2009, Microsoft developed a tool (Photo-DNA) in collaboration with a leading U.S. university, which has been licensed for free to thousands of companies and Governments. This programme creates a unique digital signature of each image, enabling copies of child abuse material to be found and removed. Furthermore, a notice has been put on blocked webpages, which contained child abuse material, to clearly state that the material is illegal and provides a number to contact in order to receive help and treatment. Collaboration between the private sector and States are fundamental and Ms. Foreman spoke about the WePROTECT initiative. Moreover, children often need to be protected from manipulation, considering the amount of information to which they have access though the Internet. Lastly Ms. Foreman spoke of self-generated material which is an issue which deserves attention and Microsoft is collaborating with the Internet Watch Foundation to tackle this phenomenon.

During the questions and answers section, a representative from the ILO mentioned research on masculinity and asked how working on related preconceptions could lead to a decrease on the demand factor.

In the closing remarks, the Special Rapporteur underlined the importance of addressing the issue from different perspectives at an international as well as national level. To better understand who the offenders are, it is fundamental to facilitate research. There is still a long way to go and the Special Rapporteur hoped that their thematic report together with the contributions of the panellists would be useful in tackling the demand for the sexual exploitation of children.