Political recognition of the consumer at the international level

Consumer protection attracted political attention in the early 1960s. This sudden interest was due to health scandals that painfully demonstrated that an unbalanced power relationship between purchasers and producers could result in serious damage to consumers, and opened the door to the creation of a proper consumer protection policy.

The historical moment associated with the birth of consumer policy was President John E Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1962.[1] This speech was made in response to public anger about the thalidomide scandal, which showed that the safety interest of consumers had been seriously neglected. Therefore, pressure was exerted for more regulatory control in order to protect the consumer. In his speech, Kennedy stressed the need for a distinct legal protection of the consumer, which required new legislative and administrative measures. The ensuing Consumer Bill of Rights highlighted the importance of protecting the consumer per se, enumerating four different rights: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard. Following this, the consumer movement crossed the Atlantic and, from the 1970s onwards, various European countries adopted protective consumer regulations.[2]

Several international organizations were similarly developing the idea of consumer protection as an independent legal concept.[3] On 9 April 1985, the Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution 39/248, which established general principles for consumer protection, endorsing Kennedy’s Consumer Bill of Rights.[4] This resolution did not have a compulsory value but it represented a landmark: with it, a universally recognized institution enounced general principles and guidelines, inviting governments to propose policies for consumer protection. The general principles section of the resolution enumerates a number of goals that the guidelines intend to meet:

  • (a) the protection of consumers from hazards to their health and safety;
  • (b) the promotion and protection of the economic interests of consumers;
  • (c) access of consumers to adequate information;
  • (d) consumer education;
  • (e) availability of effective consumer redress; and
  • (f) freedom to form consumer organizations and the opportunity of such organizations to present their views in decision-making processes.[5]

At the European level, the Council of Europe also contributed at an early stage to the protection of consumer standards. The Consultative Assembly of the Council adopted a Consumer Protection Charter in Resolution 543 of 17 May 1973, which, while lacking a binding character, represented a clear political recognition of consumer protection.[6] This helped to raise awareness of consumer matters and provided an impetus for its Member States to introduce protective measures. Moreover, the Council of Europe adopted a number of Conventions, some of which had a direct impact on the European Community and national consumer regulation, such as the European Convention on Products Liability in regard to Personal Injury and Death of 27 January 1977[7] and the European Convention on Transfrontier Television of15 March 1989.[8]

  • [1] John F. Kennedy’s speech, Public Papers of the United States, Public Messages, Speeches andStatements of the President, 1 January to 31 December, 1962, pp. 235-43.
  • [2] For a historical overview, see F. Trentmann, ‘Knowing Consumer-Histories, Identities,Practices’, in F. Trentmann (ed.), The Making of the Consumer: vol 1, Knowledge, Power and Identityin the Modern World (Oxford-New York: Berg, 2006), pp. 2-8; see also H.-G. Haupt, Konsum undHandel: Europa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003).
  • [3] Besides the UN and the Council of Europe, the WHO, FAO, and the OECD also contributedto the development of consumer protection standards; see T. Bourgoignie, ‘Consumer Law and theEuropean Community: Issues and Prospects’, in T. Bourgoignie & D. Trubek (eds), Consumer Law,Common Markets and Federalism in Europe and the United States (Vol. 3: Integration through LawSeries) (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1987), pp. 91 et seq.
  • [4] United Nations General Assembly on 16 April 1985, A/RES/39/248; see also the UN website:.
  • [5] See section II, 3 of the UN Resolution 16 April 1985, A/RES/39/248. For more informationon the UN Guidelines, see ch. 3.
  • [6] Recommendation 705 (1973) on consumer protection by the Council of Europe (ParliamentaryAssembly) (17 May 1973): ; see also Bourgoignie, ‘Consumer Law and the European Community’(n 19), p. 93.
  • [7] Council of Europe, ETS no. 91, Strasbourg, 27.1.1977, see the text at: ; see also the explanations on the European Commission’swebsite: .
  • [8] Council of Europe, ETS no. 132, Strasbourg, 5.5.1989; text amended by the Protocol (ETSno. 171), entered into force on 1 March 2002.
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