Child pornography and its combat by international organizations The COVID-19 pandemic and the actions of Interpol, UNICEF and WHO

Art: Julia Moreno - Source: Pixabay e Pixy
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International Organizations are created as arenas for cooperative arrangements between States that have similar interests concerning a subject. When strengthened, IOs can gain legal power to impose sanctions and gain autonomy to define rules based on the delegation of part of sovereignty by member States. This means that an Organization works on International Society as an institutionalized form of trade and cooperation that considers International Society’s power arrangement and can create aid measures because of financial support from governments or the private sector (Seitenfus, 1997).

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemics it was already clear how it would affect society in general. The urge to social distancing, use of masks and keeping a good hygiene were some of the points that are highlighted as the main ways to prevent the virus. Although it seems easy measures, it impacted people’s lives in different ways: triggering for example, several mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety; increased the level of poverty of many countries with the unemployment levels; and it impacted the education of many children who had to adapt their learning process with online learning. Those lockdown measures can expose children to abuse and, according to UNICEF, “66% of countries reported a disruption in violence against children-related services due to COVID-19”(UNICEF, 2020). As stated by UN’s General Secretary, Antônio Guterres:

With children out of school, their communities in lockdown and a global recession biting deeper, family stress levels are rising. Children are both victims and witnesses of domestic violence and abuse. With schools closed, an important early warning mechanism is missing. There is also a danger that girls will drop out of school, leading to an increase in teenage pregnancies. And we must not ignore the growing risks children are facing as they spend more time online. This can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming. A lack of face-to-face contact with friends and partners may lead to heightened risk-taking such as sending sexualized images. And increased and unstructured time online may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying (UN WEB TV, 2020, n.p.).

According to the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Pornography and Prostitution (OPIC), child pornography is considered ”any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes” (OHCHR, 2000, n.p.). This Convention states that every country’s police should take legal action when faced with any kind of sexual exploitation of children or the possession/produce/export of child pornography (OHCHR, 2000). Another important concept to understand is that according to UNICEF’s Convention on Rights of the Child, children is considered anyone under the age of 18, without any discrimination of any kind (UNICEF, 2020).

Considering the exposed, the purpose of this article is to understand how international organizations are trying to combat the consumption and production of child pornography in 2020, as the rates of this crime has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and of the quarantine measures that have emerged all around the world.

The hypothesis is that Interpol, UNICEF and WHO are the three international organizations concerned about child pornography during the pandemic: Interpol is trying to combat the crime as an internet hazard, suggesting international cooperation between governments to regulate online platforms; UNICEF is creating measures to protect children of any type of abuse, including teaching ways to identify anybody who could harm kids so that the guardians of these children can recognize profiles on social networks with some intention of abuse; WHO is offering support for all the consequences of COVID-19, and in this case it’s offering strictly financial aid. And so, this article has three case studies, Interpol, UNICEF and WHO, respectively, and their official websites and documents are used for the research. At the end, our finds are summed up in the conclusion section.

The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol)

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Interpol logo | Source: Interpol

The INTERPOL was funded in Monaco in 1914 with only 24 member countries and headquarters based in Vienna, Austria. The organization was born aiming to amplify the cooperation between the police forces of the countries, so it would be easier to investigate transnational and other crimes. In 1956, INTERPOL grew and since then has 192 members. For that, it is considered the world’s largest police organization, where each member has their own office. The official headquarters is now in Lyon, France. INTERPOL is a worldwide police organization, and is responsible for managing everything – from police operations to training on how to deal with specific crimes. With that said, in this article we are going to focus on cybercrime, which is one of their main programs. 

Cybercrime happens in a fast and constant form, which is why police have to always reinvent themselves, so they can find new solutions to fight these situations (INTERPOL, 2020). Considering cybercrime as a priority for INTERPOL, the organization has to deal with the ramifications of this crime, being child pornography one of them. As priviouslymentioned, child pornography is any means of representing a child in real or not real sexual activities, or of their sexual parts for sexual purposes. This is already monitored by the organization, since it investigates specially forums on the darknet.

In a lecture presented at Chaos Computer Congress, a congress on computer science in Hamburg, it was estimated that a large part of the access to the darknet is directed to the search for pornography, being about 80% of these accesses linked to child pornography in specific (DR…, 2015). Thus, the darknet works as a way to facilitate trafficking and other illegal activities that end up violating the rights of children, and this reinforces the need for actions to help end this situation (UNICEF, 2017).

With the lockdown measures in the pandemic scenario, kids spend more time on the internet to study and also to have entertainment. The offender takes advantage of this situation, since most online abusers use online platforms like games to keep in touch with their victims, adapting the way they act, so they can avoid the police – which is also working with reduced staff during the lockdown (INTERPOL, 2020).

It is important to note that most consumers and producers of child pornography content are directly involved in sexual contact with adolescents and children, so this problem should never be minimized, since behind the pornographic media, there are abusers and victims. Having that said, child pornography is a crime based on trust between the abuser and the victim, and therefore the issue claims for laws that ensure the rights of the innocent involved (Walmocyr, 2018).

One of the main difficulties encountered when investigating this type of crime is that it has no boundaries or limits, and therefore, crime can often happen to victims from one country and abusers from another (Walmocyr, 2018). And so, the role of INTERPOL can be extremely important, since the organization works sharing databases of criminals from around the world, facilitating cooperation between countries at the time of performing operations, which culminates in positive results.

The role of the organization in this way can be seen in Operation DarkNet, which was the largest police operation to combat child pornography on the darknet, which was led by the Brazil (Walmocyr, 2018). Despite the leadership, as the operation involved criminals from all over the world, the operation was sent through INTERPOL to the respective countries of origin of the offenders, and provided data about them and the necessary materials for these countries to carry out the operations and take the necessary steps to deal with the crime (RIO GRANDE DO SUL, 2016).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, INTERPOL made a report about how the lockdown measures had an impact on the growth of online consumption of child porn. This report aims to alert countries about this huge problem and also suggest measures to face the crime during the pandemic. According to Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL’s Secretary General: “What the report shows is that we are seeing just the tip of a growing iceberg in terms of online child exploitation material.”(INTERPOL, 2020). Considering this, the organization is encouraging countries to use the intelligence services INTERPOL can provide to the members:

INTERPOL can play a key role in driving enhanced cooperation and information sharing mechanisms with providers across different jurisdictions. The sheer number of providers entering the market requires a coordinated approach not only for the reporting of incidents but also for the detection of CSEA cases and the sharing of information with law enforcement. Use INTERPOL capacity building, training and technical support relating to Victim Identification, the ICSE Database, Open Source and Darknet Investigations (INTERPOL, 2020, p. 16).

Besides, the organization also encourages countries to prevent and detect the problem by spreading the need of using campaigns to aware the population and reinforce the hotlines so they can provide assistance to victims. It is also important to mention that INTERPOL claims for its members the need to adapt the tools that are already used to combat this crime, such as support, medical and justice systems. Those tools need to work alongside an online environment so that this situation can be dealt with in the best possible way. INTERPOL is also still conducting operations and prioritizing the ones in which the offender has access to children, always providing technology and human staff to ensure that these operations will   (INTERPOL, 2020, p. 16-17). 

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)

The UNICEF is an UN agency focused on providing development and humanitarian aid for children all around the world. The Organization began with the International Children’s Emergency Fund that was founded in 1946 by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as a result of the refugee crisis caused by World War II, that was primarily focused on providing medicine for refugee children in Europe.

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UNICEF logo | Source: UNICEF

This Emergency Fund had a very important impact on solving the consequences of the world war on children, and so the UN General Assembly realized that a bigger fund was necessary to help children in all aspects and all over the world – and so, UNICEF was founded through a UNGA resolution on that same year (UNICEF, 2020). After that, the Fund began to receive donations from companies and countries, being these contributions its primary source of income. Since 1950, UNICEF works in all continents to provide aid for children in all aspects, which includes: health, sanitation, water, psychological and/or physical abuse, war and violence, exploitation, natural disasters, extreme poverty, inclusion for disabilities and gender, education, among other aspects (UNICEF, 2020).

Considering that UNICEF aims to protect children from any kind of abuse, the Fund started to deal with child pornography to protect their integrity from any type of sexual violence. Since the early 2010s, the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre has been conducting research to determine how sexual abuse and exploitation can occur through the internet, mobile phones and technology in general. All data compiled is being used by the UNICEF Child Protection Strategy to make the determined actions to put OPIC in action, as well as being published as papers to help UNICEF’s partners – that includes the Child Exploitation and Online Safety Centre within the UK Police, the Safer Internet Programme within the European Commission, and the Child Protection Partnership of the International Institute of Child Rights and Development – in dealing with the issue (UNICEF-IRC, 2020).

Alongside that, UNICEF has other projects surrounding the topic of child pornography. As the issue is connected to sexual violence in any scope and child trafficking for sexual exploitation, the Fund works embodies the combat of child pornography in other areas. In Lithuania, for example, sex tourism is very big in the country as about 50% of prostitutes are believed to be minors and most of these children are used to produce pornographic content (UNICEF, 2020). To combat that, UNICEF is trying to implement several measures such as youth employment as apprentices, education, targeting of vulnerable families for local economic development, conditional cash transfers, among other initiatives.

To sum up, the Fund attempts to identify children in situations of risk to prevent that sexual exploitation occurs, and also to assist any that are already victims with the rescue out of the violent environment, psychological assistance and reintegration on society through education. Alongside that, law enforcement can be used on anyone of age that forces children into labour or any sexual act (UNICEF, 2009).

Also, UNICEF provides psychological therapy to children after they are rescued from situations of abuse. An example is that in the Philippines, a country where the rates of child pornography and sex tourism online are the biggest in the world, the government’s police force identifies where children are being abused and invades the place to rescue them. With that, UNICEF’s work begins: psychological treatment to help the children deal with their abuse and to identify their needs for the next step; up-close education with capable teachers that make a suitable program for the children to develop intellectually and physically; conduct research on similar conditions that the children and their families lived, to identify possible locations where child pornography could happen/be happening. In the Philippines specifically, the legal age for sexual consent is only 12, which doesn’t go along with UNICEF’s definition of child, and so the Fund has been trying to implement several measures to combat child pornography, such as partnering with Interpol to create the Office of Cybercrime in the country (UNICEF, 2020).

But, despite all this effort, the conviction rate for child pornography all over the world is still low, because it remains very difficult to locate places of child abuse without complaint. Also, the private sector doesn’t help UNICEF with funds to deal with this issue specifically, such as the help for communication/internet companies. It takes too long to remove the improper content and to locate the victims and abusers, and so most of the investigations don’t end with the abusers in jail.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that UNICEF finances awareness campaigns at schools, communities and hospitals in cities where child abuse is found to be more frequent. Also, the Fund is providing, in partnership with Interpol, programs for police forces on how to identify and deal with children in abuse situations as well as cybercrime (UNICEF, 2020).

According to UNICEF, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, online sexual abuse and exploitation of children increased so much that 1 in 5 kids in the Philippines, China, Thailand and India is susceptible to sexual abuse (Hallare, 2020). Considering this, the Fund created a guide for parents and caregivers to help them create boundaries on their kids online time, as well as ways to address online safety and to identify potential abusers.

At the end of the guide, UNICEF compiled a list of numbers and emails where any report concerning the subject can be denounced (UNICEF, 2020). Besides that, UNICEF also compiled a ”Guidance for mobile operators and content providers” with measures that these operators and content providers can take to improve their online platforms and make them child-safe. These tips include, for instance: 

[…] requiring schools to share online schedules; advising children to wear appropriate clothing when in front of webcams and not to connect with their teachers or virtual classrooms from bedrooms; and refraining from using private instant messaging services in teacher-student communications or asking for consent from parents for such sessions. Schools should also seek digital security mechanisms to ensure that only authorized individuals are able to access online learning platforms and that those platforms do not record and store the virtual learning sessions by default […] Companies that are developing and deploying virtual classrooms and other education-specific platforms should make sure that safety features are integrated and enhanced and clearly accessible to educators, parents and students (UNICEF, 2020, p. 4).

The document, that was written in a partnership with WHO, UNESCO, UNODC and other international organizations, sums up the possible impacts of the pandemic on children when considered online safety. It is very informative and UNICEF has been helping with the forwarding, sending it to schools so they can implement the suggested measures as well as share it with parents. It is also the primary document shared between UNICEF’s State Parties, and the clearest and most comprehensive document found online – which shows that this Fund’s efforts are being well-received by the International Society and that UNICEF is extremely concerned about dealing with child pornography (UNICEF, 2020).

The World Health Organization (WHO)

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WHO logo | Source: Website of the World Health Organization

The World Health Organization is one of the UN agencies, created to promote health around the globe. It was created in April 1948, and it has 194 member countries that share the purpose of the organization (WHO, 2021). WHO’s main agenda is based on human rights, and because of that, the organization has many main goals – such as professional capacity for all member countries, promote health in fragile places, manage health risks, improve the spreading of information and data, and also deal with emergency health situations as the COVID-19 pandemics (WHO, 2021). Child pornography is a matter that deals directly with a child’s mental and physical health, which is why WHO is also concerned about the problem. 

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is defined by the WHO as “the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend and is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violate the laws or social taboos of society.” (BHAT; CHAUDHURY; PATKAR; SRIVASTAVA, 2017). 

WHO deals and gives importance to this matter, as can be noticed by when, in 2004, the organization called a meeting hosted by their African office, aiming to debate about child sexual abuse, calling it a “silent health emergency”. In this meeting, one of the highlighted points was child porn, and how it contributes directly in child sexual abuse, making this a health matter (WHO, 2004).

The main concern here is due to the fact that usually those episodes of sexual abuse that happens constantly until the child say something or someone finds out, compromising the child’s mental and physical health. Also at this meeting, WHO tried to provide directions to its member countries on how to prevent and combat the child sexual abuse by proposing measures such as law enforcement, clinical care, rehabilitation of victims and reinforcement of the support and report of the problem that should be seen as a public health matter, emphasizing how important it is that WHO takes care of this agenda since so long (WHO, 2004).

As stated before, the lockdown measures have put many children at risk, since their mental and physical health are compromised with new anxiety and stress related problems, and also the abuse that some of them suffer at dysfunctional homes, and it can be sexual or not. Regardless, according to WHO, it is only possible to know for sure the impacts of child sexual abuse during the pandemics when the lockdown measures ends. That is because it’s hard to get any reports while the kid is at home with the aggressor.

Another factor that aggravates this situation is that the hotlines and authorities are with reduced staff, making the process of reporting the crime even harder. In spite of everything, WHO is worried about victims that have to stay at home suffering this kind of abuse and with reduced access to health care during the pandemics. This situation also increases the risk of child porn material being produced, since it is directly connected to the Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse  (CSEA) (INTERPOL, 2020).

Thereafter, WHO has even published a statement against children violence during the COVID-19 pandemics. In this statement, WHO and other organization leaders take acknowledgement that the pandemic is impacting children’s lives in severe ways, especially with the increase of CSEA. With that, these leaders ask for the countries to protect and try their best to reduce and combat violence against children during these pandemics more than ever. Leaders also highlight the difficulties of children being at home because of lockdown measures, the increase of online activity and, because of that, the increase of an online unsafe environment, where child porn is a reality and also sexual exploitation.

With no access to safe places to report or to be taken care of, these children get completely vulnerable, and because of that, countries should act by reinforcing their efforts to combat CSEA, specially when it comes to child’s government protection services, that even with the crises, should have the resources to take care of abuse and violence situations. WHO also reinforces that they will support keeping essential health services for children, such as psychological and emergency help, so that they can guarantee as many safe children as they can (WHO, 2020).

As global organisations working to end violence against children, we will continue to advocate for and invest in effective child protection solutions. We will collectively develop and share technical resources and guidance for policymakers, practitioners, parents, caregivers and children themselves. And we will support the courageous health, child protection and humanitarian professionals working around the clock to keep children safe during these unprecedented times (WHO, 2020).

WHO and also the other organizations that wrote this statement are committed to provide any kind of protection to children and also share resources so that anyone can help in combating this problem during the COVID-19 crises. Anyhow, we can also highlight that the increase of online activity also claims for new measures so that the internet won’t be a risky place for children. Because of that, WHO also encourages countries and technology companies to detect online child porn and also any unsafe children activity on the web (WHO, 2020).

It is visible that WHO is already concerned about the child porn problem, and aiming to reduce this crime the organization used technology to help in its prevention and combat. WHO used technology companies’ help to keep the online environment for children a safe one, by detecting activities that are considered harmful against them, and also helping to detect child porn videos on the internet.

With this assistance, they were able to undermine child porn material and protect a lot of children on the internet. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to keep doing that manually, especially on social media, since artificial intelligence is already responsible for detecting illegal content on the internet, but this kind of software is not as accurate as a human being dealing with this situation – since they don’t really analyze the content in question.

Another impact is that reports about CSEA are not that efficient since these social networks companies have fewer people working analyzing online content and are relying more on softwares, as we mentioned before. Because of that, the confection of reports  becomes too slow, and with that, criminals on the darknet have the time to remove public CSEA material, aiming to sell and distribute it in other networks and forums (INTERPOL, 2020).

Conclusion

This article’s hypothesis at the beginning of the research was that Interpol, UNICEF and WHO are the three international organizations concerned about child pornography during the pandemic: Interpol is trying to combat the crime as an internet hazard, suggesting international cooperation between governments to regulate online platforms; UNICEF is creating measures to protect children of any type of abuse, including teaching ways to identify anybody who could harm kids so that the guardians of these children can recognize profiles on social networks with some intention of abuse; WHO is offering support for all the consequences of COVID-19, and in this case it’s offering strictly financial aid.

It was proven that Interpol is indeed proposing international cooperation aiming to combat this crime, specially by offering the organization’s databases so that member states’ police forces can share information about investigations and help in providing a safer online environment for children. UNICEF is indeed focusing on education, and it was surprising to see how the organization is cooperating with other IOs in order to promote awareness about the issue. WHO is not focusing on providing financial aid for research and combat measures, but is cooperating with IOs and private companies in order to find a solution to identify abusers and on ways to deal with the emotional and physical impact of the issue on children.

Also, it was surprising finding out that UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is also very engaged in combating child pornography during the pandemic. UNESCO has been partnering up with many other international organizations, such as UNICEF and WHO in order to spread awareness to the issue and press international society for funding to create effective measures. Although the subject is not on the organization’s scope at first, when considering that it deals primarily with culture, world heritage, environment and education, UNESCO has a big group of State Parties and is trying to assist the combat of child pornography.

References:

SEITENFUS, Ricardo. Manual das organizações internacionais. Porto Alegre: Livraria do Advogado, 1997.

WALMOCYR, Luiz Jr. Protegendo Anjos: O dia a dia da Polícia Federal no enfrentamento à pedofilia e à disseminação de pornografia infanto-juvenil na Internet. 1 ed. Buqui. Porto Alegre, 2018. 

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