A breakthrough report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights

By: Tamara Amoroso Gonçalves

Discussions involving Human Rights in consumer society are not new. UN bodies have been studying relations between an enterprise’s behaviour and its impact on Human Rights enjoyment and enforcement.

More evident negative consequences were already addressed by other UN documents, including Conventions. They concern issues such as slave and child labour and environmental problems. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights, transnational corporations, and other business enterprises have lately studied more specific problems in consumer society and discussions have been made regarding a possible update on the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection.

In October, the Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights presented a report to the UN General Assembly regarding the effects advertisement and commercial messages can have on cultural, educational and freedom rights. After conducting extensive research on regulations regarding this issue around the world, the Special Rapporteur concluded that nowadays advertisements are more than just information. Rather, advertising, interferes in the construction of a symbolic universe and the development of personal values and habits. 

The document points out that: “The power of advertising to influence individual choices demands a careful assessment of the means advertisers use, taking into consideration in particular the rights of people to privacy and to freedom of thought, opinion and expression, as enshrined in particular in articles 17 to 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as their rights to education and to participate in cultural life, as protected in particular in articles 13 and 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”.

Associations that fight for consumer and child rights have long argued that commercial messages interfere in the healthy development of children. Quebec’s province in Canada and Sweden are known for banning advertisements to young children, recognizing the adverse effects advertising could have on a child’s fundamental rights. 

Given that this is a global problem and that multiple countries have been discussing the issue, this new Report is very welcome. The Special Rapporteur, stresses that “The freedom of thought and opinion, which lies at the heart of human rights, including cultural rights, deserves a particular mention. Although people have their own agency and critical resistance, and while trying to convince someone is not an encroachment on the right to freedom of thought and opinion, and in fact supports democratic debate, the Special Rapporteur is of the view that the increasingly blurred line between commercial advertising and other content, the myriad advertisements and marketing communications people receive daily, the dissemination of such communications through a large variety of media used in a systematic and integrated way and the resort to neuromarketing aimed at circumventing individual rational decision-making raise serious concern.”.

Another very important subject brought to light by the report is related to the lack of public space nowadays. The Special Rapporteur reminds us that States must ensure public spaces are free from commercial influence, as these spaces contribute to improved cultural exchanges, social cohesiveness and diversity. 

Finally, regarding children’s protection, she specially recommends that States: “must ban all commercial advertising and marketing in public and private schools and ensure that curricula are independent from commercial interests”. It also claims that States guarantee a set of public spaces free from commercial influence, such as kindergartens, universities, hospitals, cemeteries, parks, sports facilities, playgrounds and others. Another important recommendation is to: “Prohibit all forms of advertising to children under 12 years of age, regardless of the medium, support or means used, with the possible extension of such prohibition to children under 16 years of age, and ban the practice of child brand ambassadors”. 

We can consider this a starting point in combining Human Rights and consumer rights and a definitely big step in ensuring children’s rights. This new report contributes to and strengthens local and regional discussions regarding advertisement regulation to protect particularly vulnerable individuals, such as children.

Link: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/69/286&referer=http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/CulturalRights/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx&Lang=E 

Tamara Amoroso Gonçalves is lawyer with a Masters in Human Rights concluded at Sao Paulo University. Member of CLADEM/Brazil and of the Brazilian National Network for Promoting Children’s Rights. Associate researcher at the Simone the Beauvoir Institute – Concordia University, Canada.