Bulletin n°1: UNCTAD IGE on Consumer Protection Law and Policy

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Jul 3, 2017, 5:56:51 PM7/3/17
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Bulletin n°1 | Monday, July 3, 2017
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This week, UNCTAD is holding the second Intergovernmental Group of Experts (IGE) on Consumer Protection Law and Policy, a standing body established under the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP). This annual meeting monitors the application and implementation of the guidelines, and provides a forum for consultations, research, technical assistance, and peer reviews. With this bulletin, CUTS is keeping you posted on the proceedings.

@UNCTAD #UN4Consumer
OPENING

Opening Plenary


In his opening remarks, Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary General of UNCTAD, recalled the 1962 landmark speech by US President Kennedy which first laid out the founding principles of consumer rights: the right to safety, to be informed, to choose and to be heard. In December 2015, the UN General Assembly mandated UNCTAD to promote the revised UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP).

It is in this context that UNCTAD’s Intergovernmental Group of Experts (IGE) on consumer protection law and policy was established to monitor the implementation of the guidelines, providing a forum for consultations, research and studies, technical assistance, and voluntary peer reviews.

He noted that international trade is taking place in a fast-evolving world, where developments such as e-commerce provide new opportunities but also new challenges for consumer welfare. Consumers face even greater challenges in developing countries, where their access to quality products and information is often hampered by institutional constraints. Addressing these challenges will require governments to, inter alia, build trust, implement adequate policies, and enhance institutions.

Speaking from the floor, several developing country delegates stressed the importance of technical support and cooperation for implementing consumer protection regimes, and better take advantage of the digital economy.
KEYNOTE SPEECH

Consumer Protection: Delivering Redress


In his keynote speech, Christopher Hodges, Professor of Justice Systems, and head of the Swiss Re/CMS Research Programme on Civil Justice Systems, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University, reviewed different approaches for delivering consumer redress. He observed that while many countries have not adopted collective litigation systems, they have often developed alternative, non-judicial mechanisms which research suggest have been particularly effective.

Such alternative approaches may entrust regulators or ombudsmen with redress powers as part of their enforcement toolbox. As a case in point, ombudsmen in Denmark and other Nordic countries are a consumer enforcement power rather than a dispute resolution one. In Italy, the central bank has similar sectoral enforcement powers. Focusing on agreements rather than sanctions, such systems have a striking record for handling cases quickly, with an average of 38 days. In the UK energy sector for instance, the number of redress actions has increased significantly while the penalties have reduced, creating greater direct benefit to consumers. It was argued that giving redress power to regulators can be more efficient, given their understanding of players and potential conflicts in their sector.

Besides enforcement, ombudsmen have been entrusted with other functions, such as: (i) consumer information and advice; (ii) individual and collective dispute resolution; (ii) collection and aggregation of data; (iv) feedback of information (identification of issues and trends); (v) pressure on market behaviour etc. According to Prof. Hodges, there is a case for cooperation between ombudsmen and regulators in order to provide a broad framework to deliver consumer redress. Ombudsmen can identify trends based on similar claims, and cooperate with the regulator to engage key players in the sector (e.g. consumers, media etc.) and adopt a consistent approach to resolution. Indeed, the regulator is often best positioned to engage with businesses, on whom it can impose redress
IMPLEMENTATION

Implementation of the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection


This session gave an opportunity for member States and stakeholders to present and share their initiatives undertaken in connection with the implementation of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection since their last revision of December 2015. This is one of the main functions of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Consumer Protection Law and Policy, which was set up to provide an annual forum and modalities for multilateral consultations, discussion and exchange of views on matters related to the guidelines and their implementation.

At the national level, a number of countries have leveraged the guidelines to enhance their consumer protection regimes. This year for instance, Peru adopted a national policy whose implementation plan (2017-2020) will focus on 27 specific activities in the areas of education, market monitoring, orientation through awareness-raising campaigns, dissemination of law materials, online portals and apps for lodging complaints, mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution etc. In particular, recommendations from the guideline on dispute resolution and redress were adopted, such as ADRs, with a view to increase the rate of redressed complaints.

In India, a task force for the implementation of the guidelines has been established, as well as a central consumer protection agency in the near future. Support to consumer organisations has been prioritised, resulting in the creation of a consumer welfare fund to which any organisation engaged in consumer welfare for at least 3 years can apply. Besides this, India conceptualised a 3-tier system involving all stakeholders, featuring consumer fora at different levels as well as a quasi-judicial dispute resolution system which has already addressed millions of cases.

In the wake of digitalization, new challenges are emerging for consumers whose personal information have become a traded commodity. The need for international cooperation in this area was highlighted, where discussions should addresses issues of safety and security in the face of cyberattacks, defining “fair use” of personal data, as well as the protection of data privacy which is a human right. Such issues for discussion inspired the establishment of the G20 Consumer Summit.

Speaking from the floor, other delegates expressed their appreciation for the involvement of academic representatives at the national level of discussion because they bring information necessary for furthering the discussion of consumer protection.

On the panel were H.E. Mr. Gerd Billen, State Secretary for Consumer Protection, Germany; H.E. Mr. Shri C. R Chaudhary, Honorable Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, India; Mr. Ivo Gagliuffi, President, National Institute for the Defense of Free Competition and the Protection of Intellectual Property, Peru; Ms. Stacy Feuer, Assistant Director for International Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, United States.
ROUNDTABLE

The Protection of Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Consumers


This session aimed to develop recommendations for member states to take into account the specificities of vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers and adequately protect them, recommended by the UNGCP. Vulnerable consumers are those at high risk of experiencing difficulties on the market, typically less able to make informed decisions. This ability is influenced by factors such as: (i) literacy, e.g. ability to read terms and conditions; (ii) difficult financial situation; (iii) those who suffer long-term sickness; (iv) gender-related issues, e.g. poorly educated women; (v) lack of access to internet to search information and compare etc.

Speaking on the panel, Pradeep S Mehta, Secretary-General of CUTS International, emphasised that poor, vulnerable consumers face special disadvantages. “How could they demand redress if they don’t know their rights?” he said, emphasising that strengthening the consumer movement is an imperative for assisting poor and helpless consumers. In this regard, he congratulated UNCTAD for institutionalising consumer protection in the UN framework, and called for the adoption of 15th March as World Consumer Rights Day as a next step.

Considering initiatives that member states could take to address the needs of vulnerable consumers, suggestions by other panellists included: (i) review consumer laws and policies in light of the UNGCP; (ii) educating consumers about their weaknesses which could lead to vulnerability; (iii) fostering a consumer protection culture in the society, e.g. in school curricula; (iv) one-stop-shop comparison platforms, e.g. for financial products; (v) consumer booklets, to raise consumers’ awareness about their rights in different sectors etc. ; (v) adapted communication channels, e.g. social media for the youth vs. print media for elderly; (vi) Prioritising vulnerable consumers in offices which offer face-to-face interaction, to provide direct advice etc.; (vii) discounts in public services for vulnerable consumers e.g. in water, energy etc.; (viii) survey trackers to improve consumer service, whenever consumers file a complaint ; (ix) translating main brochures in local dialects, prioritising pictorial representations; (x) engaging with local leaders in rural areas; (v) creating school clubs for consumer protection, e.g. who may conduct supermarket inspections.

Coordination between national regulatory bodies was also identified as important, as coordinated actions are needed at all levels to prevent breaches and violations. Example was given from Egypt, where the High committee of market regulation and consumer protection is composed of various public institutions including supply police, internal trade directorate, competition authority etc.

Finally, international cooperation could contribute to a more inclusive and sustainable environment by taking account of consumer vulnerabilities. For instance, it was thought that the EU’s Rapid Alert Systems (RAPEX) for dangerous non-food products set a good model for cooperation regionally. Other initiatives such as the African Dialogue on Consumer Protection and the International Consumer Protection Network (ICPEN) also encourage regional and international cooperation and sharing of good practices, where vulnerable consumers may be put at the top of the agenda.

The keynote speech was given by Dr. Sothirachagan Sinnathurai, Vice-Chancellor, Nilai University, Malaysia, followed by a panel discussion with H.E. Mr. Paulo Ferreira, Deputy Minister for Economy and Secretary for Trade, Ministry of Economy, Portugal ; Mr. Atef Yacoub, Chairman, Consumer Protection Agency, Egypt ; Mr. Brian Lingela, Director for Consumer Protection, Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, Zambia ; Mr. Pradeep Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International.
PEER REVIEW

Framework for Voluntary Peer Reviews on Consumer Protection Law and Policy


Through the IGE, UNCTAD provides a framework for conducting voluntary peer reviews of national consumer protection policies, with a view to assess the effectiveness of national legislation and suggest ways to enhance consumer protection law and enforcement. During this session, experts provided recommendations to improve the framework for conducting such peer reviews.

It was recalled that the process for such peer reviews would include: (i) selection, i.e. formal request, selection criteria, scope, selection of peer review panel etc.; (ii) consultations, including fact-finding mission and report; (iii) assessment, through discussions at the IGE and devising an implementation plan; and (iv) Post-assessment steps, including dissemination of results and implementation of recommendations, possibly through technical assistance projects. It was also suggested that peer reviews could be complemented by self-assessments.

Past experience suggests that such peer reviews have a boosting impact on advocacy, and have proved useful in accessing funds and technical assistance for implementing recommendations. Sharing lessons from the African Peer Review Mechanism, South Africa stressed the importance of: (i) political leadership; (ii) assessment based on mutually-agreed, pre-defined criteria and baselines; (iii) need for multi-country perspectives on the panel for mutual learning; (iv) the voluntary nature of the peer review; and (v) including consumer voices in the process.

Finally, Morocco expressed interest in volunteering for such a peer review of its consumer rights and protection laws.

Speakers on the panel included Mr. Teodoro C. Pascua, Undersecretary for Consumer Protection Group, Philippines ; Mr. Robin Simpson, International Expert ; Dr. Laura Best, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University ; Mr. Rajan Dhanjee, Global Traders Conference.
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