Whether we are “leavers” or “remainers” we must recognise that the European Union has played a pivotal role in ensuring that member states have focused on ensuring that they have effective child protection policies.
There may be a legitimate argument as to whether the EU should have such a role, but what has to be recognised is that child exploitation is no respecter of borders or rules. Effective child protection has required and will continue to require cross-border co-operation, and what the EU has endeavoured to do is to try and create uniformity of laws and procedures. This is against a backdrop of obligations imposed by the United Nations.
EU powers in the field of child protection are clearly defined and explained by the EU Treaties. In some areas, the EU imposes legal obligations on the Member States to implement through legislation, particularly in relation to child protection issues with a cross-border element (such as child trafficking, forced migration and forms of sexual exploitation). In other areas, the EU works with the Member States in developing their own individual child protection systems, with the objective of encouraging and developing co-operation and minimum standards of protection. As the EU has expanded the need for this has become more pronounced.
By way of an example EU Directive 2011/92 is a comprehensive measure designed to harmonise various criminal offences against children and introduces a comprehensive approach to preventing and addressing child sexual abuse, exploitation and child abuse images. It also significantly enhances provisions to support child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, obliging Member States to provide assistance, support and protection taking into account the best interests of the child. Further that measures must be taken to ensure that professionals can, and know how to, report suspicion that a child is a victim of child sexual abuse or exploitation. This is a policy advocated by many survivors and campaigners.
The Directive also features invaluable measures concerned preventative measures, ranging from reducing demand, to disqualification, to supporting offenders and preventing recidivism, which is probably vital for the future, but arguably gets little attention.
The Directives are heavily inspired by the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Lanzarote Convention).
To-date the Lanzarote Convention is the most ambitious and comprehensive international (potentially universal) legal instrument on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. It takes as a starting point the relevant United Nations and Council of Europe standards, extending them to cover all possible kinds of sexual offences against minors (including sexual abuse of a child, child prostitution, “pedo-pornography”, grooming and corruption of children through exposure to sexual content and activities) and criminalising them. It covers sexual abuse within the victim’s family or close social surroundings and acts carried out for commercial or profitmaking purposes. It sets forth that States in Europe and beyond, shall establish specific legislation and take measures with an emphasis on keeping the best interest of children at the forefront, to prevent sexual violence but also to protect child victims and prosecute perpetrators. It also promotes international cooperation to achieve the same objectives.
The “Lanzarote Convention”, requires criminalisation of all kinds of sexual offences against children. It sets out that states in Europe and beyond shall adopt specific legislation and take measures to prevent sexual violence, to protect child victims and to prosecute perpetrators.
The UK is a signatory to the Convention but to-date has not ratified it which is regrettable because both it and Directive 2011/92 because they impose binding legal obligations which can be directly enforced by children at domestic level before their domestic authorities. Both the Convention and the Directive are the most effective means of achieving compliance by the UK with its international obligations which, otherwise, have limited effect.
Brexit and the forthcoming general election afford us an opportunity to ask in light of the UK government’s decision, to-date, not to ratify the Convention:
Surely it makes sense to continue to work with our to be former EU partners to ensure that we all operate to the best of standards in a spirit of co-operation? I ask because potentially we are abandoning something of immense value and it would be tragic to do so by default, and certainly in the absence of a credible alternative.