The United Nations has awkwardly toyed with consumer protection law; awkwardly because consumer law is so different from country to country even though it straddles the field of international trade which is of great interest to the United Nations. Many states which are members of the United Nations are not fully developed economically - consumer law is meaningless when basic necessities of life are found wanting.
In the result, there is no strong body of international consumer protection law. Blowing in the wind are 1985 guidelines adopted by the United Nations and amended from time to time.
A Brief History of Consumer Rights
Consumer protection law became a priority for industrialized and developing countries. In 1929, two Americans started a now-defunct organization called Consumers Research soon replaced by the Consumers Union, which was founded in the United States in 1936.
In 1960, an international organization was created in London called Consumers International, in 1960. CI proposes what they term "eight consumer rights" but which are more properly termed ideals. For example, according to CI, consumer should have a "right to choose". Except within a socialist state, how could you possibly legislate to give effect to a "right to choose"?
The recognition of this emerging field of law was crystallized by these words of then United States President John F. Kennedy in his address to the U.S. Congress on March 15, 1962 when a Bill for Consumer Rights was moved in the US Congress:
"Consumers, by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group in the economy, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Two-thirds of all spending in the economy is by consumers. But they are the only. important group in the economy who are not effectively organized, whose views are often not heard.
"If a consumer is offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and national interest suffers."
Kennedy proposed four ideals for consumer protection law, which he called rights: the right to safe products, the right to demand information about a product or service, the right to a competitive marketplace and the right to get redress against a manufacturer or a distributor.
In 1969, another American President used these words before the US Congress:
"I believe that the buyer in America today has the right to make an intelligent choice among products and services. The buyer has the right to accurate information on which to make his free choice. The buyer has the right to expect that his health and safety is taken into account by those who seek his patronage. The buyer has the right to register his dissatisfaction, and have his complaint heard and weighed, when his interests are badly served. This "Buyer's Bill of Rights" will help provide greater personal freedom for individuals as well as better business for everyone engaged in trade."
In the late 1970s, Economic and Cocial Council of the United Nations came to be somewhat peculiar view that the development of consumer protection law would somehow foster and promote economic development!
However, the General Assembly was finally given a set of guidelines on consumer protection and adopted them on April 9 at the 106th plenary meeting, 39th Session.
In 1985 Consumer Protection Guidelines contain some 46 articles. The guidelines are of no legal effect but merely provide what could be called an internationally recognized set of basic objectives; still, an essential start to what may one day be international consumer law.
In the preamble, the guidelines refer to:
"… Consumers often face imbalances in economic terms … and bargaining power and … should have the right of access to non-hazardous products…."
One of the "general principles" of what the UN puts forward as a "legitimate need" of a consumer is:
"Access … to adequate information to enable them to make informed choices…. (and) availability of effective consumer redress ."
The 1985 United Nations wish-list for domestic consumer law relies heavily on voluntary standards, a system rife with the representation of manufacturers' interests but little, if any independent consumer representation:
"§9. Governments should adopt or encourage the adoption of appropriate measures, including legal systems, safety regulations, national or international standards, voluntary standards and the maintenance of safety records to ensure that products are safe for either intended or normally foreseeable use.
"§24. Governments should, as appropriate, formulate or promote the elaboration and implementation of standards, voluntary and other, at the national and international levels for the safety and quality of goods and services and give them appropriate publicity. National standards and regulations for product safety and quality should be reviewed from time to time, in order to ensure that they conform, where possible, to generally accepted international standards."
But the Guidelines do present in an international document the standard components of basic consumer protection law:
"§10. (…) Consumers should be instructed in the proper use of goods and should be informed of the risks involved in intended or normally foreseeable use. Vital safety information should be conveyed to consumers by internationally understandable symbols wherever possible.
"§12. Governments should, where appropriate, adopt policies under which, if a product is found to be seriously defective and/or to constitute a substantial and severe hazard even when properly used, manufacturers and/or distributors should recall it and replace or modify it, or substitute another product for it; if it is not possible to do this within a reasonable period of time, the consumer should be adequately compensated.
"§13. Government policies should seek to enable consumers to obtain optimum benefit from their economic resources. They should also seek to achieve the goals of satisfactory production and performance standards, adequate distribution methods, fair business practices, informative marketing and effective protection against practices which could adversely affect the economic interests of consumers and the exercise of choice in the market-place.
"§16. Governments should adopt or maintain policies that make clear the responsibility of the producer to ensure that goods meet reasonable demands of durability, utility and reliability, and are suited to the purpose for which they are intended, and that the seller should see that these requirements are met. Similar policies should apply to the provision of services.
"§17. Governments should encourage fair and effective competition in order to provide consumers with the greatest range of choice among products and services at the lowest cost.
"§18. Governments should, where appropriate, see to it that manufacturers and/or retailers ensure adequate availability of reliable after-sales service and spare parts.
"§19. Consumers should be protected from such contractual abuses as one-sided standard contracts, exclusion of essential rights in contracts, and unconscionable conditions of credit by sellers.
"§20. Promotional marketing and sales practices should be guided by the principle of fair treatment of consumers and should meet legal requirements. This requires the provision of the information necessary to enable consumers to take informed and independent decisions, as well as measures to ensure that the information provided is accurate.
"§28. Governments should establish or maintain legal and/or administrative measures to enable consumers or, as appropriate, relevant organizations to obtain redress through formal or informal procedures that are expeditious, fair, inexpensive and accessible. Such procedures should take particular account of the needs of low-income consumers."
Back to the Future
Ten years after the ratification of the guidelines by the United Nations, Economic and Social Council hijacked the basic theme of consumer protection to accommodate sustainable development and environmental protection.
Still, academic and bureaucratic gymnastics notwithstanding, the 1985 guidelines have assisted the development of international consumer law.
India has been observing March 15th since 1989 as the National Consumers’ Day.
The first consumer protection organizations have emerged in Africa and Asia. Regional meetings were held on consumer law and South America, Asia and Africa. Slowly but surely, developing nations are teasing into their statute books basic consumer rights. For example, according to a 1998 United Nations research paper:
"[C]onsumer rights are legally recognized in thirteen Latin American and Caribbean nations, and within seven of these countries, they are also included in the Constitution. Central American countries generally do not have extensive laws for protecting the rights of the consumer. Nevertheless, during the last two years, four countries have created or strengthened legal norms in this area: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama. New consumer organizations galvanized by the participation of civil society have also been established in the region, and have carried out activities such as consumer education, consumer information and guidance, research on problems affecting the consumer, and lobbying. In South America, the governments of Bolivia and Paraguay are presently negotiating legislation to protect consumer rights."
- A/RES/39/248, 16 April 1985, UN General Assembly, "Consumer Protection"
- Consumers International website, http://www.consumersinternational.org/ (as of Dec. 19, 2010)
- Consumers Union website (as of December 19, 2010): www.consumersunion.org
- Duhaime, Lloyd, 1929: Consumers' Research Inc. (USA), First Consumer Rights Organization
- Richard Nixon, Special Message to the Congress on Consumer Protection, October 30, 1969
- UN Decision #7/2, Changing Consumption and Production Patterns (7th Session, New York, 19-30 April 1999)
- UN Decision #54/449, United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection, (87th Plenary Meeting, 22 December 1999, General Assembly)
- UN 38th General Assembly, Resolution 38/147, Consumer Protection, 102nd Plenary Meeting, December 19, 1983
- United Nations Economic and Social Council website www.un.org/en/ecosoc (as of December 19, 2010)
- United Nations, Economic and Social Council, "Background paper for the United Nations Inter-Regional Expert Group Meeting on Consumer Protection and Sustainable Consumption: New Guidelines for the Global Consumer", January 28, 1998