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How can we protect vulnerable children from the perils of enhanced communication?

Katharina Theil asks what needs to be done to combat the perils from enhanced communication facing the most vulnerable children in the world

Small child at computer
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Katharina specialises in international human rights and corporate accountaiblity law.
As a Nottingham man is sentenced to life for a rape over the internet in the first conviction of its kind, Katharina Theil writes about what needs to be done to combat the perils from enhanced communication facing the most vulnerable children in the world.

A 57-year-old retired maths teacher was last week jailed for life for virtual child rape over the internet in what is believed to be one of the first convictions of its kind.

Paul O’Neill was sentenced at Nottingham Crown Court, after pleading guilty to offences including rape, arranging the commission of child abuse and child prostitution. 

O’Neill, a recently retired British school teacher, had forced children in the Philippines to be subjected to severe sexual abuse whilst he watched from his home in the UK.  Sometimes, the judge noted, he had also recorded the abuse so that he could watch it on repeated occasions.[1] 

He was found guilty of the offences, including the rapes, because they were carried out according to O’Neill’s instructions, which is why he was the one to be held responsible.[2] 

The evidence that enabled the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to prosecute included lengthy chat logs retrieved from O’Neill’s computer showing his instructions to adult abusers in the Philippines.[3] 

Over the last two decades the internet has had a revolutionising influence over most parts of our lives. 

Email and video calls have profoundly changed the way we are able to communicate with people near and afar.  Along with the positive opportunities that this entails, however, this has sadly also created new ways of abusing and exploiting the most vulnerable.

One of the most horrendous examples of this is the use of online platforms such as the one used by O’Neill to arrange for and watch from afar whilst children are sexually abused in front of a camera. 

Where fast advances in technology, such as the introduction of high speed broad band internet, take place in societies with a high level of poverty and inadequate regulation and support, children are left vulnerable to exploitation.   

The fact that the charges against O’Neill included rape despite the offences occurring far from O’Neill’s home is a sign of the progress the CPS is making in prosecuting these sorts of crimes. 

At an event organised by Leigh Day in November 2016 on the subject of ‘Tackling the Globalisation of Child Sexual Abuse’ John Carr OBE, one of the world’s leading authorities on children's and young people’s use of the internet and associated new technologies, described online abuse as the new frontier in the area of tackling international sexual abuse and stressed that each time an image or video is shared a child is put in danger again.

The criminal conviction of O’Neill is an important step in the right direction.  Perpetrators have to be held just as accountable for sexual abuse instigated and directed online as for sexual abuse carried out by the perpetrator physically. 

This is crucial in particular where comparatively rich Western abusers try to hide behind the cloak of the internet in exploiting vulnerable children who live in poverty.  For the children, the abuse is just as real. 

In addition to the crucial work of the CPS in convicting perpetrators of these crimes, more needs to be done to ensure that survivors of such spiteful abuse have a chance to live a normal life again.

First, questions need to be answered about whether access to servers that host online platforms used to stream and distribute images of child sexual abuse could be blocked.  This would encourage internet providers to play their part in preventing the transmission of sexual abuse via their servers. 

Secondly, the survivors should have means to obtain justice and support.  In the International Abuse team at Leigh Day, we have seen that survivors of sexual abuse need to be able to pick up the pieces of their lives again, to get medical treatment and an education. 

In countries where Governments do not provide the required support, civil claims for compensation against the perpetrators based in the UK and elsewhere in the West are one way of obtaining the means for this. 

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-40299140
[2] http://www.cps.gov.uk/news/latest_news/teacher-who-arranged-for-sexual-abu/
[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-40299140

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