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It was 30 years ago that UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) came into force. Today children all over the world are facing a very different situation. Their lives have altered in many ways and technology has played a significant role in these transformations. In 2020, children and their families are faced with a challenge that is unprecedented in history; the COVID-19 pandemic is requiring people to adapt to a new way of life. It is taking children away from classrooms, playgrounds and their friends and moving them closer to technological devices. Increasingly, more and more children are now learning online.

However, the growing number of hours children spend online is also increasing their risk of being exposed to a multitude of dangers. These include cyber bullying and sexual predators, which have long lasting and serious negative effects on their emotional and psychological well-being. Research indicates that sexual predators often reach children through chat rooms and social media platforms using fake profiles. Such engagement has the potential to lead to sexting, grooming, sextortion, live streaming and the development of child sexual abuse material. In addition, it can also progress to cyber sexual harassment or cyber stalking. Reports from the Interpol and Europol indicate a significant rise in such engagement parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic. In Sri Lanka, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) has indicated similar concerns with the rise in child abuse cases during lockdown situations.

In this context, the recent decision by the government to draft a new bill on obscene publications to curb child pornography is laudable. It is an urgent need as Sri Lanka does not have a law specifically to address child sexual abuse material (child pornography). The recently released research report, “Sri Lanka: Online Child Sexual Exploitation-Legal Gap Analysis” produced by Verité Research and commissioned by ECPAT- PEaCE Sri Lanka, points out that while the proposed Obscene Publications Bill expands on the existing obscene publication statute to include online methods of distribution, production and consumption, it fails to proscribe simulated images of children or images appearing to be children engaged in sexually explicit conduct, which is a growing issue relating to online child sexual exploitation around the world.

The bill uses imprecise language to define child pornography, an important element that is necessary to criminalise each participant in the chain from production to possession and consumption. The report calls for the amendment to include any material that visually depicts a child, a person appearing to be a child or realistic images representing a child engaged in sexually explicit activity, including distribution through a computer system, procuring for oneself or others or possessing child pornography.

In order to further strengthen protection for children online, the report proposes an amendment to the Computer Crimes Act No. 24 of 2007 that will include the offence of online child sexual abuse material (child pornography) as defined in the Budapest Convention and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, both of which have been ratified by Sri Lanka. It recommends the withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s reservations to the Budapest Convention. Article 9 of the convention specifically prohibits child pornography.

It is hoped that the relevant authorities will take into consideration the current global trends in online child sexual exploitation as well as provisions in existing international instruments, most of which are ratified by Sri Lanka, in addition to gaps in the penal code, when revising the new draft bill on obscene publications to curb child pornography. Strengthening the legal framework to prevent online sexual exploitation will go a long way in helping children enjoy their childhood, reduce potential psychological scars and pave the way for a physically and mentally healthy future generation.