We live in a fast-changing world –
One in which digital innovation evolves at a dizzying speed and opens up seemingly endless opportunities.
But to make the most of that potential, we must ensure that change happens in a way that upholds our fundamental rights.
Rights that belong to all of us –
Every woman, every man and, yes, every child.
The covid-19 pandemic has put into sharp contrast some particular aspects of that challenge.
Many school-age students in Europe have spent long periods of time at home, distance learning.
This has meant more time spent online.
On the upside, the rise of digital technology means that they can still attend classes and complete assignments:
Something that would have been impossible before recent times.
But still it poses some important challenges for us.
We all know that that hate speech, bullying and cybercrime – including sexual exploitation and sexual abuse – exist online.
And the terrible and lasting harm that these do.
There is also significant evidence that cyber harassment and cybercrime accelerated during recent lockdowns, and that children have been targeted as never before.
Action is required to protect their well-being – and the Council of Europe is playing its role.
Earlier this year, member states endorsed our Secretary General’s new Strategic Framework of the Council of Europe.
Among its priorities are:
- Further efforts in the fight against the sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children;
- Combatting cybercrime;
- And responding to Artificial Intelligence and the broader impact of digital transformation, and the use of new technologies.
So, the determination to act is clear, and many of the tools are already at hand.
Our recommendation on developing and promoting digital citizenship education will help governments to empower and protect young people in their online activities.
Our Lanzarote Convention helps them protect children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in every environment;
And its monitoring committee issued a statement early in the pandemic aimed at helping authorities to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and exploitation at all times, everywhere.
It also issued a call for partners to share information on the problems that they were experiencing in safeguarding children, and what initiatives they were taking in light of this.
I very much look forward to the evaluation of those measures and to hearing more about whether new support mechanisms might be appropriate.
Similarly, work on the issue of child self-generated sexual images and videos is vital.
Regrettably these images are increasingly common among young people, cause deep distress, and ultimately destroy a person’s self esteem and pride.
This is why the Lanzarote Committee’s second monitoring round is paying specific attention to how this problem can be dealt with.
More broadly, the digital environment is already a clear priority within the current Council of Europe’s Strategy for the Rights of the Child:
A Strategy that has generated more than 300 activities and has inspired a range of tools, handbooks and guidelines for parents, educators and policy-makers – and for children themselves.
The new Strategy, which will come into effect next year, will also address specifically the issues around children’s access to technology, and how to use it safely.
Lastly, the Council of Europe’s expanding partnership with internet companies aims to protect freedom of information while promoting education and fighting cybercrime.
This is important.
At the same time, our Committee of Ministers has made a number of recommendations calling on governments, internet intermediaries and others to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of children in the digital environment –
But having a working relationship with the companies themselves is essential to building trust and understanding and paving the way to future progress.
The covid-19 pandemic has also shone a light on other issues that must be addressed.
For example, on the need to protect children’s personal privacy and data when they are on the internet and using online products and services:
A matter covered not only by our Data Protection Convention – Convention 108 – but also by a Committee of Ministers Declaration last April and certainly also the Guidelines on Children’s Data Protection in an Educational Setting, adopted less than a year ago.
In addition, we must not lose sight of the reality that lack of access to digital education and technical equipment has hit some groups particularly hard during the public health crisis.
Poorer children, migrants, those from national minorities or who are living with a disability or are deprived of their liberty –
These groups and others have often lagged behind in terms of access to online learning –
And this threatens to engrain inequality more deeply:
Something that we must work to prevent.
Dear friends, today’s digital world provides children with a horizon crowded with possibility.
But it is right that we reflect on the dangers that this entails and that we do what is possible to address them.
Hungary has long prioritised children’s rights, so it is no surprise – but very much welcome – that its authorities have organised this important conference as part of the country’s presidency of our Committee of Ministers.
There are 150 million children in Europe today.
Their welfare must be our priority, - online, offline -and at all times.
I say this as the Deputy Secretary General in the Council of Europe, but also as a father and grandfather.
I now very much look forward to hearing your ideas about how we can build a better, safer future for them.
Thank you for your attention.