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On 11 April 1997, representatives of 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Members of the European Parliament, European Commission staff members, law enforcement representatives and individuals with expertise in the area of child protection, gathered in Brussels for a Hearing on the subjects of trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.
The Hearing was one element of a broad-ranging response from the Commission to the events of 1996 that had shaken Europe and galvanized public and political opinion. The discovery of the bodies of a number of missing girls in premises in Belgium in late summer 1996 raised questions about what Europe could do to protect children from those who wished to abuse or exploit them for profit. The first World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm in August that same year, provided more information on such issues and, in a Declaration and Agenda for Action, suggested some possible actions that could be taken.
In an Aide-Memoire to the Commission following the World Congress, Mrs Anita Gradin, Commissioner with special responsibility for coordinating the Commission’s activities against trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, declared that:
“the Commission endorses the analysis made in Stockholm concerning the existence of multiple, in many respects interlinked factors of an economic, social, cultural and political nature which conspire to create an environment leading to the sexual exploitation of children”.
In the face of these challenges, Mrs Gradin said, the Commission also:
“subscribes entirely to the Declaration adopted in Stockholm, calling for ‘concerted action at national, regional and international level’, which presupposes the mobilization of all the partners involved (national public authorities, international agencies, NGOs and private associations, civil society and the tourism industry) as well as the provision of the necessary funding. In this connection, the EU, through the European Institutions, has a responsibility to bear in combating this scourge within its borders…”
The Commissioner presented a number of new measures in fulfilment of the Stockholm Agenda for Action, including a Communication on trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation; a Communication on combating child sex tourism and draft recommendations to Member States; a Green Paper on new audiovisual services such as the Internet; and a Communication on harmful and illegal content on the Internet.
Commissioner Gradin’s presentation emphasized the vital role to be played in combating sexual violence against children by NGOs and public authorities, and the urgent need for centralization of data, the encouragement of informal forums for exchange of experience at European level, movement towards consensus on legal and programmatic guidelines, and improved targeting and assessment of measures to be taken and financed by the EU itself.
The April 1997 Hearing was therefore called to seek the views of grassroots organizations on how European-level cooperation and exchange could function and where the focus of efforts should be placed. A moderator was provided by the UNICEF Regional Office for Europe, and the conclusions of the Hearing were to feed into a new initiative to be launched by the Commission specifically to promote NGO action.
The participants were clear about what they felt was needed: