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21st February 1999
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The boundaries of horror

A conference on sexual abuse of children on the Internet calls for regulatory methods
By Maureen Seneviratne
"The only way to cure the ills of freedom is to ensure more freedom, and the only way to cure the ills of democracy is to have more democracy." These were the thought-provoking words of the Director-General of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Frederico Mayor at the first-ever UNESCO initiative for children held at its headquarters in Paris recently. He was addressing the Experts meeting on: "Sexual Abuse of Children, Child Pornography and Paedophilia on the Internet." 

"The main concern of UNESCO," Mr. Mayor said, "is the young children of today. It is wasteful and dangerous to sexually abuse children or to involve children in pornography and acts of paedophilia. This runs diametrically counter to universal social and human values - and even risks destroying the future of society - our own children - when they should be in school learning to build the societies of the future." 

"In responding to the views expressed by many member states, UNESCO is deeply concerned with the problems of sexual abuse of children, child pornography and paedophilia on the Internet because these children are at the very crossroads where education, culture, tolerance and peace should be making headway, and not the traffic of moral corruption, violence and hatred. These are the children who should be in the schools that UNESCO and its member states seek to assist and for which the organisation seeks to provide the latest resources and techniques in education, science and culture." 

"The minds of children are the seeding ground for the peace of the next generation. And if these children are corrupted in morals and their ethical sense is distorted at this very tender age, what is to become of the adults tomorrow?" 

The major concern at this meeting was the potential of the Internet to wreak havoc among vulnerable children, while at the same time "not destroying the tools" of communication in its most dramatic and arresting forms. As Mr. Mayor said,

"While seeking to protect children from the dangers of the Internet, it is also important to distinguish and punish the real criminals, and not destroy the tools, the new communication and information technologies, the creative environment which offers the means of transferring culture, and education, as well as, unfortunately, child pornography and paedophilia." 

There lies the dilemma, according to Debbie Maloney, President of the California based "Safeguarding our Children - United Mothers" Organisation. Her own 10-year-old son was abused 37 times by a neighbour who got access to the child through the Internet and who "loaned" the boy to other Internet child abuse group members. Now, she said, "they are on-line telling each other they are okay - but what of my son? How effectively can his trauma be treated?" 

The experts pointed out that ways and means have to be discussed, devised, disseminated to curb this. UNESCO itself has a "dual role" in this respect as it has an ethical interest to safeguard freedom of expression. Its charter mandates the free flow of ideas by word and image, a wider and better balanced dissemination of information at international as well as national levels without any obstacle to the freedom of expression. But was that "charter" not drafted well before the Internet came into existence. 

The Conference called for self-regulation among Internet providers to prevent children from becoming victims of abuse and to make sure the 15 million children suffering from the Internet do not see the sordid scenes of child pornography accessible on many web sites. Parents were recommended to use filters and screening tools for children accessing the Net and the UNESCO Plan of Action also called for an aggressive information campaign about the long-term harm suffered by sexually abused children screened mercilessly on the Net, over and over again through innumerable and unidentified web sites. 

A very useful suggestion was the creation of an international "Electronic Watch Tower', where abused children and their parents can turn for immediate help. It also urged the setting up of national hot lines. Experts told the Meeting that paedophilia was flourishing as never before via contacts made in chat rooms and forum groups that increasingly pepper the Internet and which spreads with the help of e-mail. 

"The Internet is becoming the most significant factor in the sexual abuse of children," said Ms. Agnes Fournier de Sanit Maur, a member of the specialised crime unit of Interpol. "The boundaries of horror will continue to be pushed back with the assistance, albeit unintentional, of technological progress. Criminals have proved to be more computer literate than many police officers," she added. 

Where some Internet aficionados baulked at the idea that governments should regulate the Net to flush out pornography, claiming such censorship threatened freedom of expression, the majority of delegates denounced such objections as puerile when one considers the colossal damage done to children. The meeting was an eye-opener on the power of the Internet to create evil, so that it becomes imperative for parents, schools and society to ensure a safe environment for their children before the TV screen and the computer. 

(The writer of this article, Chairperson of PEACE was invited by UNESCO/Paris to present a paper on: Family, social and economic perspectives: origins, causes, prevention and care of child abuse victims and the commercially, sexually exploited child: from the Asian perspective.)

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