Leading article: Two ways to stop paedophiles who travel for sex

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The Independent Culture
THE FOREIGN Office minister Derek Fatchett has just arrived back from the Far East and announced an international conference to be held next October on paedophile sex tourism: an activity which takes Western men to foreign countries in order to buy the services of child prostitutes. There could not be a clearer target for a government with a declared ethical foreign policy - a term that is otherwise beginning to have a sadly oxymoronic ring to it.

First things first. Arguments about child sexuality and cultural relativity are completely inappropriate in this context. There is no such thing as acceptable child abuse, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child could not be clearer. The issue at stake is all the more transparent because, in addition to victimising the most powerless in any society - the children - this is also a question of economics.

Paedophiles who travel abroad for an activity because it has too much social danger attached to it in this country and, even more sadly, is more expensive here are taking advantage of one of the most unpleasant truisms of international capitalism: any vice can be catered for at a price. If you can't find it in your immediate environment, go where the people are more desperate. They are bullies sexually and economically - which has to be one of the most noxious combinations known to humanity; it cannot be possible to do enough to stamp it out.

There are two ways you can subsequently approach this, and given the vast scale of the problem - an estimated 1 million children join the international sex trade each year, with 650,000 working in Asia alone - both are appropriate.

The first is to tackle it from the Western end by stopping paedophiles exporting their warped behaviour. Difficulties abound - after all, unlike football hooliganism abroad there is no such thing as a paedophile "season". But there is some advantage to be had in Britain from the Sex Offenders Act of last year and the resulting register of sex offenders. Why, for example, are registered paedophiles not forced to specify their destinations when they go abroad? And why don't convictions for child sex abuse show up on domestic criminal records?

It is all very well, one might very well say, to hold a conference declaring the need for greater international sharing of information about paedophiles, but, if the information is not collected and available in the first place, all the fine sentiments in the world will not help.

Secondly, you can clamp down on child prostitution in the destination countries themselves, which is the larger project of the two because of the lucrative nature of prostitution and the grinding poverty it is often associated with. It is worth remembering also that the problem of prostitution among children cannot be eradicated by simply improving the lot of the children and offering alternative employment opportunities for them. Many children support their families with their earnings - so the issues are something that must be looked at and dealt with flexibly.

Paedophile sex tourism is undeniably a problem in terms of the scope of human misery, the numbers involved and geographical ubiquity. However, like many of the largest obstacles, it is probably best to think of it in terms of what can be accomplished in a practical and immediate way.

For instance, Durham police sent a team of advisers to Manila in November last year at the suggestion of the British embassy. They went to share their best practice experience on how to talk to child prostitutes and victims of sexual abuse. As the officer in charge of the project explained, if one's interviewing techniques are not as sensitive as they might be then you may not get the information about the abusers which could lead to their capture. Small steps but important ones.