Law student, intern Anna Ovaska’s blog on EU strategy: Child sexual abuse does not just happen “elsewhere”

The recent Communication from the European Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, outlines the EU’s strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse (CSA). The strategy is broken down into eight individual initiatives to ensure better protection of children against CSA, some of which will be discussed here.

It is a concise and clear overview of the current situation of the prevention of CSA in not only Europe, but also the rest of the world. The Communication provides us with interesting statistics which would be shocking if we would be hearing about them for the first time, but frankly we can no longer pretend to be surprised. The problem of child sexual abuse is not a new one. We are not dealing with an unprecedented evil or a new form of criminality. CSAM has been produced, shared, procured and viewed for so long that none of us can act as if though it would be a new problem.

The Communication gives the daunting estimation that one in five children fall victim to some form of sexual violence in Europe alone. That is 20% of all children in Europe. The Communication shows a substantial increase in reports of online CSA that concern the EU, that is, for example, images exchanged within the EU and/or concerning victims from the EU Member States. The reports have gone up from 23 000 in 2010 to a whopping 725 000 in 2019. How is it possible that in less than ten years, the reports of online CSA have grown more than 31 times higher? The increase on a global scale is just as disheartening; from 1 million in 2010 to nearly 17 million reports in 2019. 

The reports indicate that the European Union has become the center of the problem, as the EU now hosts most of the CSA material globally. This development has been rather swift, as the numbers have gone up from EU hosting more than ½ of all the CSAM in 2016 to hosting more than ⅔ three years later in 2019. With this being said, it is now more clear than ever, that child sexual abuse does not just happen “elsewhere” it does not only happen in countries far away, out of our sight. We can no longer pretend that we are doing enough to protect our children, when in fact Europe is the epicenter of the entire problem. We can no longer pretend that this problem does not touch us or that our children are safe. The numbers speak for themselves, and whether we choose to turn our backs on the facts is on us, but the statistics do not lie. If anything, they underrepresent the problem, seeing as not each and every case gets reported. The children in Europe are abused and they are exploited. Again, 20% of all the children in Europe will be exploited if the prevention efforts are not stepped up. 

There is no way for me to delve into all possible reasons for these steep increases here, but a few explanations should be offered. The first, and perhaps the most obvious reason in my opinion, is of course the development of the internet and the way in which we use it. More and more people have access to the internet, and criminals are able to make use of the anonymity it provides. Especially the so-called Dark Web enables criminals to make available and share CSAM without the fear of being caught. On the bright side, however, the internet also provides those of us fighting against the sexual exploitation of children with a plethora of tools to utilize. Many organizations and service providers have been making use of their tools to detect and report online CSAM successfully. These efforts are outlined in the Communication as one of the eight initiatives.

Another explanation is simply the increase in demand. As in any other “business” the demand will be met with supply. How to then reduce demand? The answer is straightforward: to focus on prevention. States need to offer (possible) offenders tools and help. What is more, these must also be offered anonymously, without threat of punishment. I find that this argument can be met with resistance immediately, but what must be kept in mind is that allowing (potential) offenders such tools is not to say their behavior or their interests are condoned or justified. The only aim of offender-focused prevention is just that: the prevention of child sexual exploitation. Catching and punishing offenders must be left to the competent authorities, but in the meantime, the rest of us should focus on preventing the crimes from happening in the first place. Both EU (Directive 2011/93/EU) and international law (UNCRC) require EU Member States to provide potential offenders with appropriate tools and means to help them, but only a few actually do. Two of the eight initiatives set out in the Communication are to ensure complete implementation of Directive 2011/93/EU and to ensure that EU legislation enables an effective response. Therefore, I would argue that when it comes to these two aforementioned initiatives, there is a long way to go. 

Finally, to address the reason for increase of demand in Europe, and the fact that Europe has become the ‘hub’ for child sexual exploitation, I believe there are a number of contributing factors. However, what seems to be clear is that for one reason or another, offenders seem to have focused their crimes within Europe. Perhaps it is easier to keep committing crimes against children in Europe, or maybe it has just become too difficult elsewhere. What must be briefly addressed here, however, is that we cannot blindly trust the reported locations of the servers distributing and holding CSAM as there are ways to manipulate that. Whilst of course important, the geographical location must not be focused on too much, and it must be kept in mind that regardless of the real location of the servers, and regardless of whether the perpetrators are located in Europe or elsewhere, the children are still being exploited.

 Whatever the reason, and whether or not the criminals have physically relocated to Europe, criminal activity seems to have flocked to Europe. The eight initiative sets to tackle just this problem. Offenders may travel to and offend from countries in which their acts would not be punished (as harshly). This, in my opinion, shows the vital need for better harmonization of the legislation pertaining to the protection of children across all States. Finally, there is a clear need for cooperation between States to ensure better protection of children against sexual exploitation and abuse. States must share their findings and the tools they utilize to better track, catch, and punish individuals who produce, procure, share, and consume child sexual abuse material.

Anna Ovaska, Global Criminal Law LL.M. Student, Intern at Protect Children

The Protect Children delivered a statement on EU strategy on the rights of the child to the European Commission 7.12.2020.