After several years of negotiations, the United Nations has adopted a set of international guidelines to protect consumers.
The voluntary guidelines, which were adopted Tuesday by consensus of the General Assembly, are a statement of principles to assist countries in establishing consumer protection policies.
"It is the first time that there will be an international charter outlining consumer rights," said consumer leader Esther Peterson, who lobbied for the guidelines on behalf of the International Organization of Consumers Unions. "It is an enlargement of President Kennedy's consumer bill of rights," she said. In a 1962 speech to Congress, Kennedy outlined specific consumer rights, including the rights to safety, information and choice.
The guidelines, which were first proposed after controversies over product "dumping" (selling products that failed to meet one country's standards in another country) and infant-formula sales promotions in developing countries, are consistent with consumer protections already available to American consumers, Peterson said.
"This was an important shot in the arm from the United Nations for the many governments that don't have consumer organizations and aren't able to do this work on their own," said Qazi Shaukat Fareed, deputy permanent representative of Pakistan.
The U.N. document addresses the safety of consumer goods and services abroad, satisfactory production and performance standards, adequate distribution methods, fair business practices and informative marketing. It also recommends consumer education programs and steps which enable consumers to obtain redress.
The U.S. delegation to the United Nations was the principal opponent to the guidelines. Until December, when negotiations intensified between the U.S. delegation and proponents of the measure, the United States had threatened to vote against the document.
"The document, as agreed upon, represents a compromise," said Peterson. "It isn't everything that the business community wanted, and a number of things that consumers wanted were dropped."
"Virtually no one who has studied these guidelines is overly pleased, but the overwhelming view seems to be that they represent a reasonable compromise and are acceptable," said Ambassador Alan L. Keyes, alternate U.S. representative to the U.N. General Assembly.
Although the U.S. supported the resolution Tuesday, Keyes said afterward in a speech to the General Assembly that the U.S. delegation still has several objections to the guidelines.
"We would have very strongly preferred to see the guidelines speak throughout about unreasonable risks or hazards," said Keyes, objecting to the elimination of the word "unreasonable." He said the U.S. interprets "the risks or hazards mentioned in the guidelines to be only those that are unreasonable."
The U.S. also objected to the document's references to specific products or industries, such as food products or pharmaceuticals. "It would have been fairer and more balanced to omit mention of any specific products or industries, particularly when we consider the relative importance of any product varies from country to country," Keyes said.