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European NGO defends its controversial child rights campaign

December 30, 2013 · 


Terre des Hommes’ novel approach to an emerging global phenomenon known as Webcam Child Sex Tourism, has sparked global attention. However, the NGO has come under scrutiny for its methods.

By Julia Moss and Kate Richardson

The campaign, which was released to the public on November 5th, involved a computer-generated 10-year-old Pilipino girl named ‘Sweetie’ who was placed in an online chat room to lure potential users of child sex abuse material. In the space of ten weeks, Sweetie was approached by over 20,000 people requesting sexual acts over webcam.

Fact box: Webcam Child Sex Tourism (WCST) is when adults offer payment to view and direct live-streaming video footage of children in another country performing sexual acts in front of a webcam.

After ten weeks, 1,000 potential predators were identified and this information was handed to Interpol.

On the same day that Terre des Hommes handed over their information to Interpol they also released the ‘Sweetie’ campaign to the press and public. This was a concern as it has potentially jeopardized investigations by giving those who requested sex shows time to hide their online identity.

Ariane, the project manager of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) says,  “After discussing this matter with police, we believe the ‘Sweetie’ campaign was a great action, but it would have been better to carry it out in collaboration with the police from the beginning.”

Europol spokesperson, Soren Pedersen concurs.

“We believe that criminal investigations using intrusive surveillance measures should be the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement agencies,” he says in an interview with Reuters.

Despite this, Terre des Hommes argues that the point of the campaign was not necessarily about capturing those particular predators. It was about raising global awareness, instilling fear in the users and pushing law enforcement authorities to take up proactive strategies.

Psychologist and researcher for Terre des Hommes, Guusje Havenaar says, “We are not an investigating NGO. That’s not our duty. We just want to raise awareness and give the police an idea of other ways of investigating this issue.”

Havenaar believes that by letting the campaign gain worldwide attention, law enforcement agencies are obligated to act.

“If we did it without any media present, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal – police could have just waved it aside”, says Havenaar.

2nd Fact box: WCST is often described as a ‘hands off’ crime because no physical contact takes place.

Guusje Havenaar, psychologist and researcher for Terre des Hommes says, “People seem to think that because there is no physical contact between the viewer and the child, that it is not harmful for the child.”

“Our research shows that it is actually very damaging for a child to perform sexual acts in front of the camera, even though the perpetrator is not physically touching the child.”

Supply chain

At present, police are only able to start an investigation after there has been an accusation. Yet, investigations are almost never started because very few incidents are reported.

Havenaar explains that incidents are rarely reported because children and families in countries like the Philippines have become dependent upon WCST due to a poverty-stricken cycle that is difficult to break. It is often the parents and friends who introduce the children to WCST.

‘Coming from a broken family can make a child more vulnerable to the influence of others and it may provide the children with insufficient role models regarding healthy interpersonal and intimate relationships.’ says Havenaar.

Father Shay Cullen, founder of People’s Recovery blab la (PREDA), believes that children do not have a choice in these situations.

“The child does not become involved by free choice, children (18 years and below) are groomed, enticed, lured, forced or pressured to do these acts in front of a web cam.”

Havenaar adds that these children never go to the police because WCST is their livelihoods and often they don’t really see that they have been victimized by it. It is also highly unlikely that the children will want to testify against their own parents.

In a press conference at the Hauge, Netherlands,‘Sweetie’ campaign director, Huys Guht, has expressed concerns that this phenomenon may not just be contained within developing countries.

‘The worst case is that the same thing will happen with this as it did with child pornography, which is now a multibillion dollar industry in the hands of criminal gangs. Even the FBI has admitted that they lost that war.’

“We should not allow the same thing to happen with this phenomenon,” says Guht.

New Directive

A new directive in the European Union that will be released on the 13th of December this year, acknowledges Europe’s need for higher standards when it comes to child protection from sexual exploitation online.

Ariane, of ECPAT, believes this Directive is a positive step in combating WCST.

“This is the first Directive with WCST included in it, so we are happy with it,” says Ariane.

The Directive contains effective penalties for those convicted and for protection of children.(elab)

While praising the Directive, Ariane adds that the issue now is about effectively implementing it throughout Europe.

“Member states need to harmonize standards, but some member states have other priorities. Priorities of governments can change very quickly, given the economic crisis.”

Furthermore, Ariane insists that a novel approach is also needed in addition to good legislation.

“If the police cannot be pro-active, it is very difficult for them to find the perpetrators,” she says.

Professor David Wilson, HYPERLINK “”professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, believes the work done by Terre des Hommes illustrated how police forces are still trying to catch up to offenders.

‘They need to realize that they should be doing some of this stuff themselves,’ he said to the Metro.

Guht agrees, explaining that it is important to adopt a proactive investigative strategy because focusing only on the victims is not enough.

‘This is between the predator and the prey. The predator will not come forward. The prey will not come forward. We need police officers going online, just like we did with ‘Sweetie’, and trying to identify these perpetrators.’

Anonymity protection

ECPAT has also raised concerns around the importance of protecting anonymity of offenders as well as victims.

“Of course we are not defending the offenders, but we think that everybody has the right to have their identity protected,” she says.

In the Netherlands on July 8th 2011, an organization named ‘Anonymous’, caused outrage among citizens for publishing digital and personal information of alleged pedophiles.

“It is important to protect people against false accusations as well and to protect their identity. You must first check, and double check, that they are actually offenders, says Ariane.



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