Opinion: Critical Overview of the Legal Nature of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism


Writer: M.Sc. Khaled Ben Rejeb

The United Nations World Tourism Organization promotes and boosts tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability. It offers assistance to the sector by improving knowledge and tourism policies worldwide as well as contributing to international understanding and peace with respect to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Established in 1975, the UNWTO produced different legal instruments that are easily distinguished between legally binding instruments like international convention and non-legally binding instruments or soft law instruments like recommendations, statistics, definitions, or declarations of principles.

In this article, we will focus on one specific non-legally binding instrument enacted by the UNWTO which is the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism.

Principles of Conduct

The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism was adopted in 1999 to compile and present a synthesis of the various documents, recommendations, and declarations enacted by UNWTO over the years into one comprehensive document.

The General Assembly of the UNWTO held in Santiago, Chile, on October 1, 1999, has widely accepted this code as the main reference document for the development of domestic legislation and contractual documents for every state member of the organization.

As mentioned in the preamble of the code, they firmly believed that tourism represents “a vital force for peace and a factor of friendship and understanding among the peoples of the world.” stressing the need “to promote a genuine partnership between the public and private stakeholders in tourism development” that is in accordance with the UNWTO policies.

The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism contains broad principles of good conduct addressed to traditional stakeholders and states, as well as at actors in the tourism industry including tourists. For example, Article 1(4) mentions that « It is the task of the public authorities to provide protection for tourists and visitors and their belongings; they must pay particular attention to the safety of foreign tourists owing to the particular vulnerability they may have.At the same time, article 1(5) stresses the importance that « tourists and visitors should not commit any criminal act or any act considered criminal by the laws of the country visited and abstain from any conduct felt to be offensive or injurious by the local populations, or likely to damage the local environment. »

If we look at article 3(2), we notice that The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism suggests, for national, regional and local public authorities, to give a priority and encouragement to « All forms of tourism development that are conducive to saving rare and precious resources, in particular water and energy, as well as avoiding so far as possible waste production. »

Arguably, the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism is a sort of document that provides operators in the tourism industry and even tourists a number of principles of conduct as regards ethical choices in the performance of their work. But what about the legal nature of the code of ethics?

Is it a Source of International Law?

It is generally assumed that a code of ethics does not replace the existing legal rules, but is rather to be considered as a complement to it.

Moreover, it was clearly stated, when adopting the code in 1999, that the “The aim of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism is to establish a synthesis of the available documents, codes and declarations of the same kind or with comparable aspirations that were published over the years.” It refers in particular to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948; Convention on Customs Facilities for Tourism of 4 July 1954 and related Protocol; Manila Declaration on World Tourism of 10 October 1980; Resolution of the Sixth General Assembly of WTO (Sofia) adopting the Tourism Bill of Rights and Tourist Code of 26 September 1985; Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development of 13 June 1992; just to name few.

The first thing that springs to mind is the legally binding nature of the declarations, conventions and resolutions that were used as the basis of this international instrument. However, and from the perspective of Chapter II, Article 38 (1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, the code of ethics is not explicitly mentioned as being one of the sources of international law.

It thus leads to questioning whether or not the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism is a treaty.

Vienna Convention Perspective
It is clearly stated in Article 2 of “Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties” that “treaty means an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law.”

The same article of the same law gives us a concise and legible explanation of ‘ratification’, ‘acceptance’, ‘approval’ and ‘accession’ which means “in each case the international act so named whereby a State establishes its consent to be bound by a treaty.”

From the perspective of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism lacks some features that are generally provided in a treaty like specific regulation concerning the expression of consent to be bound and concerning the entry into force of the Code. In addition, it does not embody the legal rights and obligations of the parties concerned.

This notion implies that there is no international legal commitment neither to fulfill the principles embodied in this document nor to carry out obligations in a legally binding framework. Thus, it is pretty clear that the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism cannot be qualified as a treaty.

In Conclusion
During that adoption of the Code in Santiago in 1999, the UNWTO General Assembly expressly stressed the need for applying the principle of good faith in implementing and respecting the code by the stakeholders in the global tourism industry. Theoretically, this notion supports the argument that the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism can be qualified as soft law. Therefore, each state is invited to incorporate its principles into the domestic laws or into contractual provisions between tourism stakeholders.

Writer: M.Sc. Khaled Ben Rejeb
International Sustainable Tourism & Public Relations Consultant
Président de l’Association Tunisienne du Tourisme Solidaire

Email: khaledbr76@gmail.com


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