Court decision in the case concerning the close ties between the Dutch Government and the tobacco industry (November 9th, 2015): no violation of Article 5(3) FCTC

Brigit Toebes, University of Groningen,

Summary in Dutch: in september 2014 dagvaardde de Stichting Rookpreventie Jeugd de Staat in een zaak betreffende de nauwe banden tussen de overheid en de tabaksindustrie. De zaak is voornamelijk gebaseerd op Artikel 5 lid 3 van het WHO-Kaderverdrag inzake tabaksontmoediging van de Wereldgezondheidsorganisatie. Op 9 november deed de Rechtbank Den Haag uitspraak in deze zaak. De rechter oordeelde dat Artikel 5 lid 3 WHO-Kaderverdrag geen rechtstreekse werking heeft. Geciteerd uit de samenvatting van de uitspraak: ‘De stichting Rookpreventie Jeugd kan deze bepaling dus niet inroepen om de Staat de verplichten meer maatregelen te nemen om de invloed van de tabaksindustrie tegen te gaan. Artikel 5 lid 3 kan ook niet als een substantiering worden gezien van het in mensenrechtenverdragen verankerde recht op leven en gezondheid. Evenmin kan het via de zorgvuldigheidsnorm van artikel 6:162 BW worden ingeroepen.’ Voor een bespreking vooraf van deze zaak zie de bijdrage van Brigit Toebes in Nederlands Juristenblad, Afl 37, 30 oktober 2015.

English – on November 9th, 2015 the Court of First Instance in The Hague took a decision in the case concerning the close ties between the Dutch Government and the tobacco industry. The Court ruled that Article 5(3) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires States Parties to protect their tobacco control and public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry, does not have direct effect.

The case was brought to Court by the Youth Smoking Prevention Foundation. Based on a considerable amount of documents giving evidence of the close and frequent contacts between various governmental bodies (including the Ministry of Health) and the tobacco industry, the Foundation argued that the State failed to comply with the rights to life and health in Articles 2 ECHR, 6 ICCPR and 12 ICESCR, as well as with Article 5(3) FCTC and its implementing guidelines. According to the Foundation, Article 5(3) FCTC forms a specification of the human rights to life and health as stipulated under human rights law.

The main part of the Court’s reasoning addresses the question of whether Article 5(3) has direct effect. It is important to reiterate here that due to the Dutch ‘moderate monist system’, treaties automatically form part of the Dutch legal order after their ratification. This means that – contrary to states with a dualist system – no further implementing legislation is required for the human rights provisions and the provisions of the FCTC to be a ‘law’ in the Netherlands. The Court starts with a reference to Articles 93 and 94 of the Dutch Constitution, which – in a nutshell – regulate how international law is to be applied in the Dutch legal order. It is surprising that the Court refers to Article 94 in the context of this case, as this provision regulates the priority of international law over domestic laws. In the current case, it was not a law that was at issue, but rather governmental behavior which arguably gave evidence of too much undesired and unnecessary communication with tobacco companies.

The Court argues that Article 5(3) is insufficiently ‘precise’ (nauwkeurig) for the Court to rely on in the present case. In this regard, a comparison is drawn with the (arguably more precise) Article 8(2) FCTC, which was granted direct effect in the CAN decision of 10 October 2014. Given its imprecise wording, Article 5(3) cannot be seen as a specification of the rights to life and health under the human rights treaties.

For the Youth Smoking Prevention Foundation it is disappointing that the Court merely addressed the technical question of the direct effect of 5(3) FCTC. As such it did not go into the question of whether the considerable evidence provided on the frequent contacts between government and tobacco industry amounted to a violation of the international treaty provisions. It is, nonetheless, encouraging that the case has to some extent been discussed in the media and that the Ministry of Health clarified its approach towards 5(3) in a recent letter to Parliament. This suggests that the case has had a spillover effect by sparking a public debate potentially leading to a change in governmental policy.

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