The United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP) are "a valuable set of principles for setting out the main characteristics of effective consumer protection legislation, enforcement institutions and redress systems and for assisting interested Member States in formulating and enforcing domestic and regional laws, rules and regulations that are suitable to their own economic and social and environmental circumstances, as well as promoting international enforcement cooperation among Member States and encouraging the sharing of experiences in consumer protection."
The guidelines were first adopted by the General Assembly in resolution 39/248 of 16 April 1985, later expanded by the Economic and Social Council in resolution E/1999/INF/2/Add.2 of 26 July 1999, and recently revised by the General Assembly in resolution 70/186 of 22 December 2015.
UNCTAD promotes the guidelines and encourages interested member States to create awareness of the many ways in which member States, businesses and civil society can promote consumer protection in the provision of public and private goods and services.
The Intergovernmental group of experts on consumer protection law and policy has been established to monitor the implementation of the guidelines, provide a forum for consultations, produce research and studies, provide technical assistance, undertake voluntary peer reviews, and periodically update the UNGCP. Its first session will be held on 17 and 18 October 2016 in Geneva.
The UNGCP were adopted by consensus in 1985. This followed a long campaign by consumer associations in many countries, with Consumers International (then known as the International Organisation of Consumer Unions since its establishment in 1960 and granted general consultative status by the Economic & Social Committee in 1977) acting as interlocutor with the United Nations, having called upon the United Nations to prepare a 'Model Code for consumer protection' at its World congress in Sydney in 1975. This led, in 1977, to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) directing the Secretary General to prepare a survey of national institutions and legislation in the area of consumer protection and in 1981, ECOSOC requested the Secretary General 'to continue consultations on consumer protection with a view to elaborating a set of general guidelines for consumer protection, taking particularly into account the needs of the developing countries'. Draft guidelines were circulated to governments for comments in 1982, submitted to ECOSOC in 1983, drawing on many sources including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States Consumer Bill of Rights and materials from national consumer protection agencies and consumer associations.
In 1999, the UNGCP were expanded significantly by ECOSOC to include a new section on sustainable consumption (Section H of the 2015 version).
In July 2012, the First Ad Hoc Expert Meeting on Consumer Protection decided that UNCTAD should begin a consultation process on the revision of the UNGCP. As a result, the UNCTAD secretariat produced the Implementation Report on the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (1985 - 2013).
The Second Ad Hoc Expert Meeting on Consumer Protection, held in July 2013 under the French Presidency, discussed the Implementation Report and its conclusions, and proposed the creation of four Working Groups (on e-commerce, financial services, other issues and implementation) that would feed into the UNCTAD Secretariat report, Modalities for the Revision of the UNGCP, to be submitted to the VII United Nations Conference to Review all Aspect of the Set of Multilaterally Agreed Equitable Principles and Rules for the Control of Restrictive Business Practices.
In July 2013, the Third Ad Hoc Expert Meeting on Consumer Protection discussed the Modalities Report and its conclusions, plus further issues that were highlighted by member States and stakeholders as candidates for inclusion in the UNGCP. A text was negotiated among consumer protection experts and diplomatic missions in Geneva between January and June 2015.
The Seventh United Nations Conference to Review All Aspects of the Set of Multilaterally Agreed Equitable Principles and Rules for the Control of Restrictive Business Practices, which was held in Geneva from 6 to 10 July 2015, adopted by unanimity in its Resolution, the Draft Resolution on consumer protection and the revised UNGCP and invited "the General Assembly of the United Nations, at its seventieth Session in 2015, to consider the adoption of the Draft Resolution on Consumer Protection and the revised United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection as annexed to this resolution."
The General Assembly adopted the resolution on consumer protection and the annexed UNGCP on 22 December 2015 in resolution 70/186.
2015 revision of the guidelines
The 2015 revised UNGCP are preceded by the General Assembly resolution on consumer protection 70/186, which makes specific reference to the needs of developing countries, to the setting of the Sustainable Development Goals as the successors to the Millennium Development Goals, and the need for governments to cooperate across borders. References to changes since 1999 are implied by paragraphs on privacy, e-commerce and financial services, as an explicit response to the irruption of the digital economy and to the recent financial crisis.
The Intergovernmental group of experts on consumer protection law and policy is expected to continue within the framework of existing UNCTAD machinery alongside continued review of the 'Set of Multilaterally Agreed Equitable Principles and Rules for the Control of Restrictive Business Practices.
The revised UNGCP extend their scope to state-owned enterprises (guideline 2) and introduce four new 'legitimate needs' into guideline 5, the most quoted passage of the UNGCP. Completely new sections are inserted on Principles for good business practices (guideline 11), National policies for consumer protection (guidelines 14-15), Electronic Commerce (guidelines 63-65), and Financial services (guidelines 66-68).
The previous section E, on Measures enabling consumers to obtain redress, is renamed Dispute resolution and redress (now section F) and expanded to reflect the rapid evolution of such mechanisms and now includes reference to debt and bankruptcy.
The Specific areas section (now K) is expanded to include Energy, (guideline 76), Public utilities (guideline 77) and Tourism (guideline 78). Finally section VI, on International cooperation, has been significantly expanded by the additions of guidelines 82-90, largely covering enforcement cooperation mechanisms at the cross-border level.
The new section VII, International institutional machinery, addresses the review of the application and implementation of the UNGCP at national and international levels and the further review of the guidelines themselves by the Intergovernmental group of experts on consumer protection law and policy.
Intergovernmental group of experts
The 2015 revision (see section VII, guidelines 95-99) sets up institutional mechanisms for monitoring compliance with the UNGCP, under the supervision of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Consumer Protection Law and Policy, which is to be held under the auspices of UNCTAD.
The group has the following functions:
To provide an annual forum and modalities for multilateral consultations, discussion and exchange of views between Member States on matters related to the guidelines, in particular their implementation and the experience arising therefrom.
To undertake studies and research periodically on consumer protection issues related to the guidelines based on a consensus and the interests of Member States and disseminate them with a view to increasing the exchange of experience and giving greater effectiveness to the guidelines.
To conduct voluntary peer reviews of national consumer protection policies of Member States, as implemented by consumer protection authorities.
To collect and disseminate information on matters relating to the overall attainment of the goals of the guidelines and to the appropriate steps Member States have taken at the national or regional levels to promote effective implementation of their objectives and principles.
To provide capacity-building and technical assistance to developing countries and economies in transition in formulating and enforcing consumer protection laws and policies.
To consider relevant studies, documentation and reports from relevant organizations of the United Nations system and other international organizations and networks, to exchange information on work programmes and topics for consultations and to identify work-sharing projects and cooperation in the provision of technical assistance.
To make appropriate reports and recommendations on the consumer protection policies of Member States, including the application and implementation of these guidelines.
To operate between and report to the United Nations Conference to Review All Aspects of the Set of Multilaterally Agreed Equitable Principles and Rules for the Control of Restrictive Business Practices.
To conduct a periodic review of the guidelines, when mandated by the United Nations Conference to Review All Aspects of the Set of Multilaterally Agreed Equitable Principles and Rules for the Control of Restrictive Business Practices.
To establish such procedures and methods of work as may be necessary to carry out its mandate.
The first session of the Intergovernmental group of experts on consumer protection law and policy will take place between 17 and 18 October 2016 in Geneva.