Virtually all European and Central Asian countries signed a plan in Budapest Wednesday to protect children against commercial sexual exploitation. But national tradition could make it difficult to carry out the plan.
The Budapest conference on the sexual exploitation of children was organized by the Council of Europe in cooperation with the United Nations Children Fund. Delegates painted a grim picture of as many as 1 million children who are sexually exploited around the world. The trafficking of minors from Europe's former communist countries is said to be increasing at what the conference said was an alarming rate.
The Budapest meeting concluded that the sexual exploitation of children is becoming a global industry with the Internet playing a key role.
Specialists at the conference said the clandestine market encompasses human trafficking, sex-tourism, child prostitution and pornography.
UNICEF officials said that ethnic strife and wars following the collapse of Communism made children more vulnerable to organized crime groups, which are using the political vacuum and security situation to carry out their trade.
UNICEF's regional adviser, Dita Reichenberg, told VOA that the presence of tens of thousands of international peacekeepers and other groups in central and eastern Europe may have made matters worse.
Ms. Reichenberg said the situation in southeastern Europe shows that the world should investigate the sexual exploitation of all children, including teenagers. "It's not a question of pedophiles. I am not saying that they are not the problem. I am just saying it would be really wrong to think that commercial sexual exploitation is reduced to the problem of pedophiles. It's a lot broader issue. And that's why it needs a lot broader response," she said.
But she said this will not be easy because countries and communities have different traditions. In several Central Asian and Central European countries, for example, teenagers often said they work in prostitution to feed their impoverished families.
Another sensitive issue at the Budapest meeting, thrashed out in what some officials described as a "heated debate," was when childhood ends. The age at which a person is legally permitted to engage in sexual acts, the so-called age of consent, can range from 18 to age 12 in some countries.
The Council of Europe's legal director, Guy de Vel said he understands that different traditions in many countries will make it difficult to formulate a common policy.
But in an interview with VOA, Mr. de Vel added there must be a worldwide consensus that the commercial sexual exploitation of children below the age of 18 is not acceptable. "Of course it will make problems. But, you see, it is always like that. There were also different traditions concerning the death penalty and different traditions maybe about torture. I think when it comes to human rights you have to overcome sometimes traditions," he said.
European and Central Asian countries adopted what they call an action plan to end the sexual exploitation of children. The plan will also be presented at an international conference on the issue next month in Japan.
The plan worked out in Budapest includes help to re-integrate sex victims, tougher measures against criminals, national awareness campaigns, which will also target truckers, taxi drivers, hotel clerks and others who often turn a blind eye to the sex trade.
In addition, more than 20 countries, including the United States, will sign the first ever convention on cyber crime, which is intended to make it more difficult to distribute and obtain child pornography through the Internet.
UNICEF officials said they hope to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children within the next decade, but they admited it will be an uphill battle.