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ASEAN countries continue to improve legal protections for children against sexual offences, finds Freshfields and ICMEC report

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (‘Freshfields’) and the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (‘ICMEC’) have today published a report examining the “great legislative strides” taken by the Member States of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (‘ASEAN’) to advance the protection of children against sexual offences.

The report, which details the current legal frameworks for the protection of children against sexual exploitation and abuse across ASEAN Member States, aims to be a useful resource as progress continues to be made to improve and harmonise legal protections for children in the region.

ASEAN countries currently have laws in place that protect children against sexual exploitation and abuse. The laws cover, to varying degrees, offences including rape, child prostitution, abduction, trafficking and child sexual exploitation images, as well as other forms of child sexual abuse.

The report’s key findings include:

  • near-universal buy-in to major treaties on child protection, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography;
  • all ASEAN Member States (excluding Brunei) have some level of mandatory reporting obligations which in most cases apply at least to medical and education/childcare professionals; and
  • lack of reporting mechanisms applicable to website owners/online service providers and financial institutions/payment platforms—with only the Philippines imposing reporting obligations on individuals and entities within those sectors.

ASEAN Member States also established a Regional Plan of Action for Protection of Children from All Forms of Online Abuse and Exploitation in February 2022. The first focus area is a stated commitment to “promote, develop, and implement comprehensive national legal frameworks in each ASEAN Member State and work towards improving child protection standards and policies on all forms of online exploitation and abuse across ASEAN Member States”. This is a key development given the risks to children within online environments.

The report recommends certain steps for ASEAN Member States to close gaps in protection and better support enforcement and regional cooperation to combat sexual offences, including: 

  • ensuring that legislation adequately addresses the wide range and nature of sexual offences committed online in the present-day; and
  • ensuring that extradition treaties and agreements between ASEAN Member States (and beyond) are sufficient to provide effective enforcement and deterrence.

Freshfields Singapore-based senior associate Samantha Tan said: “We extend enormous thanks and recognition to those law firms throughout the ASEAN region who generously provided the underlying jurisdiction-specific data for this report. A key takeaway from our research is that there are many reasons to be encouraged by the progress of child protection laws in ASEAN Member States. There remains work to be done in a number of areas where legislative improvements are needed, as well as the closing of certain gaps in coverage, and to better support enforcement and regional cooperation with respect to combating such offences.”

Freshfields London-based associate Fiona McHugh added: “Critical areas need to be addressed to reflect the modern reality that the sexual exploitation of children increasingly happens across physical and virtual borders. Many forms of child sexual abuse are committed across or outside national borders or within an online environment. Domestic legal regimes must evolve to reflect that.”

Bindu Sharma, ICMEC Vice President Global Policy & Industry Alliances / Managing Director, Asia Pacific, added: “Risks to children are now online and no longer limited by geographical boundaries or physical access. But legislation, more often than not, still continues to address the direct, physical, real-world risks to children. With the world celebrating Safer Internet Day on 7th February and the United Nations declaring November 18th as a 'World Day Aimed at Ending Child Sexual Exploitation and Violence, Bringing Hope and Healing to Survivors', we hope this research will champion and, crucially, assist the development and strengthening of laws addressing specific online harms. In addition, we hope it provides ASEAN Member States with a useful resource as they work towards harmonizing child protection laws across the region.”

Freshfields’ senior partner Georgia Dawson and ICMEC CEO Robert Cunningham have made the following joint statement: “While our global community continues to make progress in improving the laws and systems to protect children, we still have work to do because one child missing, abused, or exploited is one too many. We hope that policymakers, law enforcement, and child-protection organisations will benefit from this comprehensive report to identify challenges and gaps that still exist leaving children vulnerable.”

The report was prepared by Freshfields in collaboration with ICMEC and local lawyers in each of the ASEAN Member States. The core team leading the research included Freshfields’ senior partner Georgia Dawson, senior associate Samantha Tan, and associate Fiona McHugh. The ICMEC team includes Bindu Sharma and Sandra Marchenko.

The full report can be accessed here.

Notes to editors

Jurisdiction-specific information relating to sexual offences against children was provided by local counsel in each ASEAN Member State. Freshfields and ICMEC reviewed and analysed the information and drafted the report.

ICMEC and Freshfields developed a questionnaire addressing a range of questions relating to child sexual offences. Legal counsel in each ASEAN Member State jurisdiction completed the questionnaire, including provision of relevant legislation and developments. On the basis of those questionnaires, and with further collaboration and input from our local legal advisors, including on follow-up questionnaires, ICMEC and Freshfields produced a comprehensive, 60+ page report of findings.