The Reaganites have found a new bugaboo and, together with a number of exporting corporations and right-wing ideologues, are whipping up a storm. The object of their hysteria is a mild set of consumer protection guidelines proposed by the United Nations Economic and Social Council for adoption later this year. These voluntary principles are, in the words of former Presidential consumer advisor, Esther Peterson, “meant to serve as a guide for governments committed to protecting, or desiring to protect the health, safety and economic rights of their citizens as consumers. They recognize the right to be protected against the marketing of hazardous goods, the right to be protected from fraudulent, deceptive, or restrictive business practices, the right to information necessary to make informed choices and the freedom to organize consumer groups and to have their views represented.”
Most of these principles come right out of U. S. consumer laws and, rhetorically, were given prominence in a speech by President John F. Kennedy 22 years ago. What upsets the Reagan people is the hint that the restless natives abroad, especially in Third World countries, should be provided with a supportive ethical framework when they discover that western corporations are dumping dangerous pesticides, drugs, other chemicals and consumer products prohibited from sale in the exporting nation.
“Global Paternalism” roars Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s UN representative. “The U.N. should not assume the role of global “nanny” and international consumer “cop,” writes Murray L. Weidenbaum, former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan. “Over-regulation,” grumbles Virginia Knauer, moribund consumer advisor to Mr. Reagan.
Of course there is no regulation nor any governmental authority at all in these voluntary UN guidelines. The critics are knowingly misinterpreting these proposals. When challenged they say that the guidelines will eventually become regulations whether by some international authority or by other countries adopting the same rules that citizens of the U.S. have demanded be part of American law.
International cartels, on the other hand, do not seem to trouble Mr. Reagan and his associates. If you want to see real power over the consumer, consider the international commodity cartels or price support systems in various energy, metals and food sectors. Or the international transport cartels such as aviation and marine shipping — to name a few. These private commercial governments are satisfying to their member companies and therefore to the Reagan Administration. But for the proposed UN consumer guidelines to provide an elevated standard of judgment for these companies from the buyer’s perspective, that is a no-no.
Regularly, lethal , rejected or substandard products are shipped to unknowing Third World consumers from western and Japanese multinational corporations. For example, heptachlor and dieldrin, banned in this country, are able to be sold abroad under provisions in U. S. law that permit this double standard to thrive. Tris-treated children’s pajamas, banned in this country when the chemical was found to be cancer-causing, were promptly shipped abroad for sale. Dumping contaminated or spoiled processed foods in overseas markets is another profitable business.
The UN proposals would not just tend to spotlight the reckless practices of multinationals. In many Third World authoritarian nations, consumer justice activity is one of the few ways the people can express their grievances. To be able to refer to ethical principles that corporations should respect is an Important asset for these peoples’ valiant efforts.
Under Reagan, the State Department, the Commerce Department and Kirkpatrick’s office are trying, with the advice of major corporate lobbyists, to block or at least severely weaken these consumer guidelines. None of the established consumer organizations have been consulted at all by the State Department.
A House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee will hold hearings shortly to find out what is going on. The Reagan government has already invited disrepute by being the only country to vote against the World Health Organization’s code for safer infant formula marketing practices and against a U.N. resolution regarding the worldwide sale of hazardous products. All our closest allies were supportive n-F these modest declarations.