Maud de Boer-Buquicchio works as a volunteer. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography doesn’t receive a salary and her team has only two people. These are revelations for me. Another one: in an era of massive data collection in all areas of our life, data on children’s sexual exploitation are rare and lack organization.

That’s what Maud de Boer-Buquicchio told me during a Skype interview last week, one year after being appointed by Human Rights Council for three-year tenure.

She was born in December 28, 1944 in Hoensbroek, the Netherlands. Prior to the UN she had a long career at the Council of Europe, starting in 1969. Between 2002 and 2012 she became Deputy Secretary-General of the Council of Europe – the first woman to hold that office. “Throughout her mandates she has focused her work on the fight against discrimination and violence, and the promotion of the rights of the most vulnerable groups”, states the official biographical note.


HER OFFICE

Are you talking from Geneva?
Actually, I still live in Strasbourg. I spent my whole professional career at the Council of Europe and I lived most of my life in Strasbourg. My current responsibilities take me frequently to Geneva and occasionally to New York. As Special Rapporteur I report both to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva and to the General Assembly in New York.

How many people do you have in your team?
I wish I could give you a big figure. The support I receive from the office of High Commissioner in Geneva is excellent. I’m working with one single person who is assigned to my mandate and an additional temporary staff member which I’ve been able to obtain as the result of the support by a member state. The big problem is that my mandate was created in 1990 and at the time there was no budget voted together with the creation of the mandate. Today when and if a new mandate is created – and there is a proliferation of mandates, something that is being criticized by member states – it comes with a budget. That’s not the case. There is a discrepancy on paper between the different mandates of Special Rapporteurs that are referred to as Special Procedures.

May I conclude you have a hard task along with the complexity of the issues you tackle?
Yes, it’s a very, very demanding task. I don’t receive a salary and that’s not a problem, I do it because I feel very strongly committed to the issues I’m dealing with but I think it would be absolutely reasonable to expect the UN to invest also in these issues by giving appropriate resources to the mandate.

Will that happen during your mandate?
I’m not sure. There is a big budgetary problem for the UN and the question is where the priorities are. I think the current High Commissioner is making major efforts to ensure more balance between different priorities, how long will that take I don’t know. I hope it happens during my three-year tenure, if not hopefully afterwards. Investing in human rights is an imperative; it shouldn’t be just talking about it. It also means allowing the Special Procedures, which are regarded as the eyes and ears of the HRC, to function properly. Apart from the issue of staff, obviously when I deal with thematic issues and when I produce reports I need to do research and to convene experts. I really need resources. But I want to repeat the support I have in the form of two persons at the moment is brilliant but it requires a consolidation.


GOALS AND “CHALLENGES”

You usually defend a holistic approach to the question of children’s exploitation. Could you explain me that idea and also summarize your main goals?
A holistic approach is about ensuring comprehensive strategies aiming at prevention and protection. We have a lot of hardship in the world for children which are the result of an increased vulnerability: migration, conflicts, the weakening of families, change of social norms. Raising awareness about these issues is a way to start, but it has to be done by looking society at large, not only children themselves. We have to ensure that whenever children are subjected to the violation of their rights there is a reporting mechanism. The reporting mechanisms which exist on the issues of sale and sexual exploitation are totally insufficient. If these reporting mechanisms can lead to prosecution and the end of the impunity of the offenders then we have made a major step. So, one of my goals is to tackle the impunity.

Who’s assuring the reporting mechanisms?
There should be child-friendly mechanisms. Children are afraid to report because it stigmatizes them. NGOs do a great work but it would be very important for children to have tools at their disposal.

Are you talking about official tools?
Not necessarily. Think of the child abuse trough ICT. There should be applications, apps, for children to use in their mobile phones so they could immediately report to a platform denouncing and asking for help. In India for instance Child Helpline India promoted the creation of telephone booths along the railway lines for children who are being trafficked; it’s an automated electronic booth at the station. There are many different tools. This is about empowering children, making them part of the solution.

What about other goals?
Another one is the enhancement of international cooperation, which means cooperation between the police and the judiciary.

Are states available for that cooperation?
There is a lot of good cooperation through Interpol when it comes to the identification of victims. Interpol has developed a victim database to which many national authorities contribute with data they collect. Cooperation is also about aligning legislation and I would like very much to have more corporate social responsibility and the involvement of private industries. I’m not only talking about Google and other ICT corporations. Because of child sexual tourism industry it should be important to involve the tourism industry, hotels and aviation companies. They can contribute to awareness raising and really denounce practices which run contrary to the cause I defend.

But Internet is nowadays the main environment where abuses are facilitated, as I read in a report you presented in December…
There an increasing Internet penetration in the world at large, but I wouldn’t say the majority of the abuse is being carried out through the Internet. The direct exploitation, including child prostitution is Southeast Asia, may be facilitated by ICTs but it happens under what I would call traditional circumstances: children being enslaved and exploited by unscrupulous pimps.


LACK OF DATA

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“Girls are the main victims though there is also a lot of exploitation of boys” (photo: UN-ILO)

Are girls or boys the main targets of sexual exploitation?
One of the problems in this area is that we don’t have the data. That’s one of the big challenges for my mandate. It would be very important to have disaggregated data. I can’t give a precise answer, but definitely girls are the main victims though there is also a lot of exploitation of boys.

So we don’t even know the ages.
We don’t. For instance, when we are talking about child prostitution in some parts of the world we know that a lot of the victims are girls aged between 10 to 15 years. But there is no solid reliable data. One of my challenges is to do a mapping exercise.

Who’s to blame for the lack of data?
It has to do with the lack of accountability of the perpetrators. Even though occasionally there are convictions it doesn’t mean we have accessible data. That’s part of the responsibility of the states. By knowing the data we can identify the strategies. I intend to address this issue through my country visits.

What’s your next visit?
I’ll go to Armenia on May and Japan in September.


CULTURAL RELATIVISM

Is there any room in this subject to talk about cultural practices that shall be respect, any room to adapt the concepts of child pornography, exploitation or prostitution?
The right to physical and moral integrity in an absolute right, there’s no room for cultural relativism there. If we’re talking about ICT related exploitation we have a complex situation. In Japan virtual images like cartoons or manga are not covered by the legislation that criminalizes child pornography. That may have a cultural explanation, but my purpose would be to make sure that at the end of the day this is also part of what should be criminalized. Sometimes these are very, very violent images which represent children as mere commodities, girls in particular. The effect they have on the social acceptance of the abuse of children should not be underestimated.

Investigator Laura Agustín uses the concept of “rescue industry” and says “social work, whether voluntary or paid, rests on an assumption that people with problems can be helped by outsiders”. She stands for the idea that prostitution may be a choice for many people, including children. Would you like to comment?
I disagree. That may be true for adults, but I would totally exclude a voluntary decision by children to be subjected to prostitution. I deliberately use the term “subjected to prostitution”: prostitution is a totally inadequate term when it comes to children. Children are being prostituted, they have no particular wish to do it, children don’t choose to become prostitutes, no way. There’s a clear obligation on adults, social workers if you wish, to help children to find alternatives for their lives. They may have been brought up in an environment in which child prostitution is socially accepted but it cannot be regarded as a voluntary choice.

A final question: do you agree that the use of children by advertisement industry is also a form of exploitation, even sexual exploitation?
Sexualization of images of young children is very disturbing. It affects the social norms of tolerance towards abuse and exploitation of children. It’s a very wrong message and should be dealt accordingly. I want to run a campaign against that.

Bruno Horta

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