The United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP) have been revised. They were adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 2015 and launched at the United Nations commission on trade and development in Geneva in October 2016.
The UNGCP have previously been administered in concert with competition policy. There is a broad international consensus on the importance and meaning of competition globally and nationally. Now for the first time the new UNGCP have put in place machinery to focus exclusively on consumer protection. The importance of this development should not be underestimated.
First, there is a new Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Consumer Protection Law and Policy. This met for the first time in Geneva following the launch of the UNGCP. This is a meeting of Member States. Some countries sent their Minister for Consumer Affairs, others Commissioners for Consumer Affairs and other senior officials, some States sent diplomatic representation. States participating included the USA, Canada, Russia, China, Brazil, India as well as smaller nations such as Burkina Faso and groups such as the OECD. The IEG is chaired by Egypt.
The meeting also included delegates from civil society and NGOs such as Consumers International and the International Law Association. There were many valuable reports and statements on national and regional developments.
To facilitate the work of international cooperation, each Member State is asked to designate an enforcement agency or a policy agency to act as a contact point to facilitate cooperation under the UNGCP. This is not just cooperation with respect to the International Group of experts but all forms of international cooperation as envisaged by the Guidelines.
There is provision in the Guidelines for Member States to undertake voluntary peer reviews of their consumer protection. This would involve a formal mechanism. There is also provision for Member States to assist each other through capacity building activities.
The role of the Intergovermental Group of Experts is set out in the Guidelines and includes an annual multilateral forum; research; peer reviews, dissemination of information; work sharing projects and technical assistance, capacity building, and reports and recommendations.
Apart from setting the framework for international cooperation, there are new substantive guidelines and principles. These include new sections on Good Business Practices Principles; National Policies; Electronic Commerce; Financial Services; Specific Areas eg Energy, Public Utilities; Tourism; Dispute Resolution and redress.
The Guidelines stress the importance of access to basic services, to knowledge and protection for the vulnerable. All of this is in the context of ongoing competitive, sustainable economies and the importance of international trade. It is well worth reading the detail of these provisions.
Member States are asked to take the appropriate steps nationally and regionally to implement the Guidelines. To assist with the approach to the Guidelines there is a new Manual which was also launched in Geneva.
The work program for the next twelve months is expressed as Legal and institutional frameworks for consumer protection and E-Commerce. The importance of the global digital economy and cross border enforcement is well understood.
There is a wealth of expertise within Australia on consumer protection law and policy at all different levels within our society. We should benchmark ourselves against these new standards. In some we may do better; in others we may be in a ‘could do better’ category.
As a country we already have numerous projects connecting the Australian consumer protection world with our neighbours and others. The Guidelines set an important agenda for national and international cooperation.