2 November 2010 - Final Edition

Editorial: Consensus versus progress?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

Download full PDF here

The issue of consensus was once again one of the most resounding themes of First Committee deliberations and actions. The consensus rule in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) was the target of much debate, while endeavours to reach consensus on certain resolutions led to complex questions about respecting previous agreements while moving forward with as much unity as possible.

During the various debates on disarmament machinery both within First Committee and the 24 September high-level meeting on revitalizing this machinery, views on the consensus rule in the CD cut across regional and political boundaries. Many believe consensus is the only way to ensure sustainable progress in multilateral disarmament, while others believe that consensus is preventing progress. The fundamental problem is that some of those states that demand consensus-based processes do not seem to respect consensus themselves.

Pakistan’s delegation is firmly committed to the rule of consensus in the CD and other fora. However, the fact that Pakistan joined consensus on both CD/1864, the 2009 programme of work in the CD that included a negotiating mandate for a fissile materials treaty, and General Assembly resolution 64/29, which urged the CD to agree early in 2010 on a programme of work that includes the immediate commencement of negotiations on such a treaty, did not prevent Pakistan’s delegation to the CD from opposing the commencement of work in 2009 or the adoption of a work programme in 2010. Regardless of the validity of many of Pakistan’s concerns, it has in fact backtracked on its commitments in these consensus-based processes.

A similar situation arose in regard to this year’s draft resolution on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, A/C.1/65/L.32. Mexico’s delegation tabled amendments to L.32 (contained in A/C.1/65/L.61), replacing language in operational paragraph 16 with text taken directly from the outcome document of the Fourth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS4) in June 2010, which was adopted by consensus. The Japanese delegation, one of L.32’s lead sponsors, admitted that it had used this language in its original draft of L.32, but found that certain states opposed it. Japan therefore removed the consensus-based language and instead used a different formulation that was met with approval by the opposing state—though not by Mexico or the fifteen states of the Caribbean Community. The Mexican delegation argued that the amendments made to L.32 “are substantially detrimental” to taking steps forward from BMS4, a meeting that had resulted in the first consensus-based document on this issue. Mexico’s delegation questioned the value of pursuing the adoption of documents by consensus if they cannot be invoked or endorsed subsequently in relevant contexts.

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. However, consensus can be—and has been—used as a veto by a minority, as is the case in the CD. Consensus can also be ignored, as is the case in both the CD, where consensus was reached on a programme of work, and the small arms resolution, where consensus on the BMS4 outcome document was ignored.

Consensus-based processes are generally employed in order to maximize the participation of as many actors as possible and to ensure that all participants are given equal voice. However, such processes can be manipulated so as to ensure that no progress in any direction is possible. Unfortunately, this appears to be the case throughout the current multilateral disarmament and arms control field. As Ambassador Hoffmann of Germany argued earlier this month, “if this kind of behaviour were to become the norm in the conduct of international relations, the international community would soon face total gridlock.”

Mexico’s questions to First Committee on the final day of the 2010 session are valid: what is the point of consensus if even agreements reached by consensus cannot be counted on to provide a direction forward? Neither CD/1864 nor the BMS4 outcome document have retained the support of a minority. Is the international community supposed to start over because a few states have changed their minds? What value does consensus add to a process if consensus undermines the process itself?

The fact that the challenges of consensus have featured prominently in the work—or lack therein—of the Conference on Disarmament and First Committee in recent years indicates that serious deliberation is needed on this concept. There is much talk about revitalizing the multilateral disarmament machinery or initiating parallel processes in order to commence substantive work on negotiating treaties. The international disarmament and arms control community needs to assess how other disciplines have managed to continue functioning in the 21st century despite facing the same challenges and complexities of the modern world and learn how to apply these lessons to its own work.

It is certainly possible that consensus-based processes can achieve progress. It is necessary, however, for all parties to want to make progress. Unfortunately, the art of consensus-building in this particular field seems to have been undermined by the determination of some to ensure that the status quo is retained for as long as possible. Overcoming this challenge will be key to the future of international security in all its aspects.

[PDF] ()