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03/15/2013

Canada drags its feet on joining global online child abuse battle

American and European diplomats are scratching their heads over why Canada remains the only Western country that has stopped short of joining a new high-powered Global Alliance against online child abuse set up in Brussels last December. 

Created under the auspices of U.S. attorney-General Eric Holder and European Union (EU) Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, the group aims to strengthen international resolve to fight Internet predators and child abuse images online.

It now includes 49 countries, including all the EU states and governments as diverse as Japan, Ghana and Vietnam – but so far not Canada.

“The nature of Canada’s participation … is under consideration,” Public Safety spokesperson Jessica Slack told the Star in an email, while acknowledging that “international cooperation is critical … to combat this terrible crime.”

The Global Alliance cites international studies that indicate more than one million images of children being sexually abused are currently online and according to the UN. Office on Drugs and Crime, 50,000 new child abuse images are added each year to the Internet.

Member countries do not have to commit any money or resources to the organization; they simply agree to set certain public targets in fighting child abuse and make reports on that progress.

The first reports are due in April and a major international conference is scheduled for 2014 in the United States.

By getting the countries to delegate their justice ministers or other top government leaders to the Global Alliance, the organization hopes to have the clout to make a difference beyond the usual platitudes and promises that often accompany international efforts to fight crime.

“We felt we needed to get political commitments from senior ministers to push this harder,” said Erik Windmar, a member of the EU cabinet and commissioner Malmström’s personal assistant

“It’s extremely important,” he told me in a  Skype interview from Brussels earlier this week.

“If we don’t have them, it is hard for law enforcement in each country to get the right resources to do the job which is crucial in fighting this global crime.”

Canadian law enforcement – including Toronto’s Child Exploitation Unit – have a well-earned international reputation for being at the forefront of undercover online investigations against child abuse

“With Canada on board, the Global Alliance would be a stronger,” says Windmar. “We think they have a lot to contribute.”

Canada had a diplomat on hand to observe the meeting that created the alliance, but after almost four months has still not given any formal notice it will sign up.

Israel has joined since the December meeting and Mexico has indicated it will soon participate as well.

“We had hoped Canada would be one of the first countries to join,” said one diplomatic source, who noted people were “surprised” by the reluctance so far by Ottawa to make a commitment.

Julian Sher is a journalist with the Star’s Enterprise Reporting team and the author of two books on child exploitation and Internet crime. He can be reached at jsher@thestar.ca and on Twitter @juliansher

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