UN Initiatives to Combat CSAM

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UN Initiatives to Combat Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM)
UN Initiatives to Combat Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM)

UN Initiatives to Combat Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM)

In autumn 1988, law enforcement agencies from 15 countries joined hands against the Wonderland Club, an international paedophile ring. This ring consisted of a chairman, secretary, and a managing committee. To become a member, an applicant needed to supply 10,000 self-produced sexually explicit images of children. Moreover, the perpetrators used five levels of encryption to make it difficult for others to view the actual content. This joint operation is a remarkable example of how coordinated action by law enforcement agencies can result in high-impact outcomes.

Laws across the globe continue to use the term child pornography to refer to sexually explicit content involving children. However, this term falls short of conveying the truly damaging nature of such content. Child sexual abuse material (CSAM) is a more appropriate term. The rise of the internet has provided paedophiles with an international stage and anonymity to facilitate their harmful behaviour. The global nature of this threat necessitates international cooperation to effectively combat it. To that end, this article discusses the initiatives taken by the UN to curb the menace of CSAM.

Understanding the Ecosystem

1. Definition

In a 1999 conference paper, Max Taylor, then Professor of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, Ireland, defined child pornography as sexual or sexualised pictures involving children. He further provided a classification for child pornography under three heads:

  1. Erotica: This classification will include pictures that may or may not involve sexual activities or nakedness but can have sexual connotations. For instance, photos of children in swimsuits. Overly sexualised cartoons of children will also come under this classification. In most places, possession and production of such content are legal.
  2. Nudity: Pictures where children are partly or wholly naked come under this classification. However, this classification will exclude pictures of naked newborn children without the intent of sexualisation. Taylor also defined a term called covert photographs. This sub-head covers individuals taking pictures of children in ostensibly “safe” areas. Also, this will often involve professional photographers in opulent settings and is an equivalent of soft porn.
  3. Explicitly Sexual: This classification includes content showing children engaged in sexual activities, posing in a sexually explicit way, or even sexual assaults. Photoshopped images of children that are sexualised (also called pseudo images) will fall under this classification.
2. Actors Involved

Taylor categorised types of individuals in the child pornography ecosystem under six heads:

  1. Confirmed collector: These individuals collect CSAM on a large scale, and their content is often meticulously indexed.
  2. Confirmed producer: These individuals engage in the production of CSAM and trade/exchange content with others.
  3. Sexually omnivorous: These individuals do not have a particular interest in CSAM, but their collection includes children in odd sexualised activities.
  4. Sexually curious: These individuals access a small amount of content to satisfy their curiosity. However, they can get more involved in later stages.
  5. The libertarian: The libertarians assert their right to free access to content on the internet, including CSAM.
  6. The Entrepreneur: These individuals develop websites, platforms, applications, etc., for the distribution and proliferation of CSAM. Their involvement may extend to the broader sex industry.

Prominent UN Initiatives

1. Vienna Conference on Combating Child Pornography on the Internet, 1999

This conference was an initiative of the foreign ministries of the US and Austria. These countries played an essential role in the discussion as the US and Europe accounted for most internet users in 1999. This conference also saw participation from internet service providers and non-governmental organisations. Therefore, the organisers hoped that the conference would educate the masses and rally public opinion on the evil of paedophilia on the internet.

Primary Objectives

  • Building better cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.
  • Formulating model codes of conduct among internet service providers.
  • Creating hotlines for citizens to report child pornography or existing networks.


  • Countries should adopt a zero-tolerance mechanism against child pornography, backed by a strong law and effective implementation.
  • The conference stressed the importance of global partnerships in the awareness and empowerment of internet users.
  • Child pornography must be criminalised across the globe, and there is a need to strengthen national law enforcement agencies and have better cross-border cooperation.
  • Governments and ISPs should join hands to define a code of conduct concerning data preservation, reporting obligations, filtering, rating systems, and self-regulation.
  • In addition, governments, NGOs, and industry leaders should establish hotlines for reporting content.
  • It is also possible to create a digitised central library of content.
  • Stakeholders should organise training programmes for personnel involved in child development and child rights issues.
2. Rio de Janeiro Declaration, 2008

UNICEF organised the Rio de Janeiro Declaration and Call for Action to Prevent and Stop Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents in 2008 with support from the Brazilian government and other stakeholders. Over 137 countries participated in this conference, including civil society organisations, academic institutions, and private sector companies. The preamble to the Rio de Janeiro Declaration specifically expresses concern about the increasing instances of sexual abuse of children on the internet. Moreover, the Declaration emphasises the role of public-private partnerships and encourages private sector companies to engage in efforts to stop the sexual exploitation of children. This Declaration also urged countries to establish independent institutions for child rights by 2013.


  • Undertaking actions to trace and stop the flow of financial transactions related to child pornography.
  • Supporting the efforts to address the demand for sexual exploitation of children in prostitution.
  • Preventing the production and dissemination of child pornography, including virtual images and sexually exploitative representation of children.
  • Strengthening the services for children victims and their families, including the establishment of accessible telephone or web-based helplines
  • Providing support for educational and awareness-raising campaigns for children, parents, teachers, youth organisations, and other stakeholders.
  • Preventing the use of the internet and other emerging technologies for grooming children into online and offline abuse
  • Maintaining a common list of websites under Interpol
  • Recognising child pornography as a criminal offence

Other UN Initiatives

1. Child Helpline International (CHI)

Child Helpline International (CHI), in association with UNICEF, implemented the LEAP project to tackle the online sexual exploitation of children. LEAP stands for Leadership in Empowering and Activating Child Helplines to Protect Children Online. CHI is a partner of the WeProtect Global Alliance, backed by the UK government, the European Commission, and the US Department of Justice. In the LEAP project, CHI reviews existing helplines and strengthens them to fight CSAM distribution online.

2. Training Manual

In 2019, ILO, UNICEF, and UN.GIFT launched a training manual for fighting the trafficking of children for labour, sexual, and other forms of exploitation. It is a comprehensive guide for personnel involved in preventive, detective, and corrective actions pertaining to the exploitation of children.


The reports from the 1999 Conference almost sound as if they were written for today’s India and, by an extension, the world. We continue to face the same problems but more pronounced and on a broader scale. Since international law does not have more than persuasive value in most jurisdictions, countries need to step up and strengthen their domestic laws with practical implementation.

UN’s role is crucial in encouraging international cooperation, especially among law enforcement agencies. This international cooperation is essential in the context of CSAM, given the boundary-less nature of the internet. However, we must consider that there is a double-speak of sorts here. Most reports are made from a largely first-world (read western) point of view. This problem was apparent at the Vienna Conference, where the discussion revolved around the issue of child pornography in Japan and Russia. Surprisingly, these two countries did not even attend the conference. Considering the participation in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, there is hope that the involvement of governments and other stakeholders will continue to improve.

Akshita Rohatgi, an undergraduate student of the University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU, worked on this article during her internship with The Cyber Blog India in January/February 2021.

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