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4 November 2009 - Final Edition

Editorial: In pursuit of consensus
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will


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In his closing remarks, First Committee Chair Ambassador José Luis Cancela of Uruguay explained that since the Committee began working this year, delegations have listened to him say that his main aspiration was the greatest possible consensus between all delegations. He called for consensus not as minimal points in agreement to create formulations more or less repeated every year and not as an imposition of the powerful over the weak, but consensus as a cornerstone for building genuine efforts to push forth in this unprecedented moment for disarmament and non-proliferation.

Most delegations took this call seriously. Sponsors of several draft resolutions engaged in intensive consultations to garner consensus on their texts, which sometimes resulted in substantial modifications to the drafts in order to accommodate concerns of other delegations. Some of these resolutions included those on a fissile materials treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space, the International Day against Nuclear Testing, and perhaps most notably, the arms trade treaty. Not all of these efforts were successful; the final example had to be adopted by a recorded vote.

Regardless of their success, these efforts demonstrate that consensus is not just an outcome but also a process. Consensus as a process is intended to be cooperative rather than competitive, to facilitate compromise rather than zero-sum approaches, and to ensure that the “tyranny of the majority” cannot silence the concerns of a minority.

Consensus as an outcome offers an aura of unity. It suggests that the final product is satisfactory to all participants, which will make its implementation easier, because everyone involved agrees with it. Yet with some resolutions, it is not at all clear that consensus demonstrates unity. Delegations frequently issued explanations of vote on resolutions adopted by consensus to register remaining concerns they feel were inadequately addressed in the modifications, or even to withdraw their participation from the consensus adoption altogether.

Some draft resolutions were so compromised in an effort to reach consensus that their original supporters had to issue explanations of vote. At least ten delegations that have been traditionally strong supporters of developing a robust and legally-binding arms trade treaty expressed concern with operative paragraph five (OP5) of the resolution, which mandates the treaty negotiating conference to be undertaken “on the basis of consensus”. Even with this concession that so alarmed some treaty supporters, the draft resolution was not adopted by consensus.

Why would governments that want a universal arms trade treaty be concerned about a negotiating conference undertaken on the basis of consensus? Do they object to equal respect for all delegations’ concerns and priorities? Do they not want a treaty that all governments will ratify and implement?

On the contrary, in their explanations of vote these ten delegations worried that consensus would mean delays or prevention of negotiation or adoption of the treaty; that it could reduce the quality of the outcome by leading to the adoption of the “lowest common denominator”—or to no outcome at all; and that it will undermine the credibility of the negotiating process and the treaty by giving all states a “veto”.

Are these concerns those of powerful countries seeking to impose their will on the less powerful? This is difficult to imagine, given that the world’s biggest arms producer and exporter—the United States—actually demanded the consensus mandate. Rather, the anxiety over OP5 reflects a much broader concern with the way consensus is currently treated in multilateral disarmament diplomacy.

At the Conference on Disarmament (CD), where no substantive work has occurred since 1998, the rules of procedure stipulate that the Conference “shall conduct its work and adopt its decisions by consensus.” This has led to a stalemate perpetuated by one delegation or another using the consensus rule as a veto to block the commencement of work. In effect, consensus as currently practiced in the CD avoids tyranny of the majority by empowering a tyranny of the minority.

Many delegations have grown frustrated with this situation. They suggest modifications to the CD’s rules of procedure. Others argue that the problem is not with the rules but with political will—or with the loss of the art of compromise. Some argue that the rule of consensus is necessary to protect national security interests.

This gets to to the real heart of problem, at least in the context of disarmament negotiating fora. The “national security interest” is put above all else, but without discussion on what—or whose—interests these are. The “national interest,” as it is typically invoked in this sense, does not refer to the well-being of the general population but of those managing the military-industrial complex. Their interests generally dominate discussions at disarmament fora and block the commencement of work or the adoption of treaties or outcome documents.

Most of the treaties or issues currently on the disarmament and arms control table are measures that would—if pursued in good faith through cooperation and compromise—actually serve to enhance true national security: the security of population and sovereignty, security against weapons and war.

Ambassador Cancela called for consensus as a cornerstone for building genuine efforts to push forth in this unprecedented moment for disarmament and non-proliferation. This effort will require, as Swiss Ambassador Streuli noted, “a fundamental revision” of thinking, “taking global security into account.”

In the time leading up to the next CD session and to the arms trade treaty negotiating conference, governments should think seriously about what consensus really means, both as a process and an outcome. Does it mean compromise? Does it mean tyranny? Or does it afford the opportunity to promote cooperative approaches to enhancing global security?

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