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Breaking the chains of silence
by Carlos A. Arnaldo

"Breaking the chains of silence": This was the constant refrain at the UNESCO experts’ meeting on the Sexual Abuse of children, Child Pornography and Paedophilia on the Internet, 18-19 January 1999 at UNESCO Headquarters. It was originally planned for some 30 experts in child care and net safety, Internet service providers, psychologists, legal experts, law enforcement agencies and UN specialised agencies. Over 400 came, 150 of them journalists eager to cover the meeting.

The event was highlighted by the presence of Her Royal Highness the Grand Duchess Maria Teresa whose simplicity was disarming, and whose direct words many took to heart. "We must not forget the factor of poverty," she said, "which has made so many victims of our children." This thought was echoed by the NGO representatives from Albania, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Honduras, Kenya, Mauritius, Philippines, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Thailand. French Actress, Carole Bouquet, lent her force to the meeting, urging for further training of the police in crimes against children and equipping law enforcement agencies with modern computer equipment.

The Heads of the International Labour Organisation and the World Tourism Organisation and the representative of the Council of Europe expressed their support for UNESCO’s initiatives in this field.


Some, however, expressed doubt whether it was in UNESCO’s, mandate to do combat paedophilia on the Internet and whether the Organisation was competent to do so. But in fact, it is the use of Internet as a communication utility for paedophilia that brought UNESCO into the fray. For UNESCO’s mandate is to preserve freedom of expression in all forms of communication, including the Internet. At the same time, UNESCO is also concerned to fulfil Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: "The child should be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, including prostitution and involvement in pornography."

The new communication technologies, particularly the Internet, have not only changed the rules of the game, they have changed the playing field.

As Dr. Parry Aftab, a US-based cyberspace lawyer, pointed out, the abuse of the web is the natural corollary of its phenomenal growth and popular appeal. "Developed in the 1970s in the United States mainly as a military and scientific project, it ceased to be the preserve of the solitary world of scientists, academics and the military the moment it was transformed into an interactive media where ‘surfers’ can access information, including graphics, video and sound with great ease."

Child Pornographers and Paedophiles are now making heavy use of the Internet to trade and sell their pornographic stories, images, and videos. The danger is not that children will accidentally happen upon these sites, as most of the illegal ones are well hidden. The real danger is that all paedophilia sites everywhere will continue to grow, and thereby perpetuate paedophilia and the production of child pornography all over the world. In other words, the Internet has now replaced pornographic and paedophilic magazines, films and videos, and in addition has become the principle forum for paedophiles to ‘meet,’ and speak to each other, thus further encouraging the perpetuation of paedophilia in every corner of the world. The NGO, Save our Children, has actually counted over 8,000 sites dealing with paedophilia. Interpol, the International Police Service, conservatively estimates yearly traffic at several hundred gigabytes of images.

Thus in addition to all the educational and cultural benefits that the Internet can provide, it has also become a global, cheap, rapid and efficient conveyor of paedophilia even allowing the paedophiles to escape detection and identity through encryption and ‘virtual’ addresses. Paedophiles have thus made of the Internet a borderless scene for cybercrimes. These crimes are now a global problem that individual states and institutions can no longer tackle by themselves.


The results:

UNESCO well recognises that it is not the first specialised agency to deal with this subject. And therefore the objective of the meeting was not to come up with a brand new plan of action. Rather, as the Declaration points out, the meeting first urged UNESCO to play the rôle of catalyser in leading the way to break the chains of silence. This means working closely with the NGOs and agencies involved and creating where appropriate transparent and efficient networks. It also means taking up from where previous fora have initiated action and taking forward this work with renewed resources. Second, within its mandate, UNESCO is asked to use its educational, cultural, social and communications expertise to contribute to providing safety nets for children online.

Summarising from the Plan of Action, this includes the following work:

1. Setting up a clearing house for NGOs, research, media, judiciary services and other actors to inform and be informed, to seek advice and resources. As there are already several networks in operation, this will be a kind of network of networks. It is not the creation of another institution.

2. Closely related to this are two electronic watchtowers. One will act as an online hotline for young children to obtain psychological advice and help. The other is for reporting illegal contents or sites, and will enable quick links to appropriate police forces regardless of the country where the sites are hosted, or the country of the one reporting the crime. This hotline is only for illegal, criminal sites. These watchtowers will be set up within existing web sites.

3. Preparation of a polyglot glossary of terms covering all the themes of this meeting.

4. Raising funds through a first circle of donor partners from the private sector to create what the Director General has referred to as a strategic group of personalities and leading citizens to lend resonance to UNESCO’s work, to marshal resources, to state the case of children to the world.

It is in this spirit that the Director-General urged all to work towards breaking the chains of silence, whether this is the silence of lawmakers, or of researchers, or of media, or of the children.


  Mr Carlos A. Arnaldo is Chief of the Section for Communication Policies and Research
of UNESCO Communication Division

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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