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2014 No. 5 | Final Edition

Editorial: The cost of “consensus”
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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As another First Committee concludes its work, the role—and abuse—of consensus has once again been brought to the fore. Delegations will no doubt be reflecting on the value of consensus, the costs involved in seeking it, and what it actually means. Some may be asking themselves whether it means compromising in good faith or rather exercising a veto when you can’t get your way.

The General Assembly does not officially operate on the basis of consensus-as-unanimity. Yet member states often seek to achieve it on their resolutions, even at the cost of watering them down.

The final resolution to be adopted at this year’s First Committee addressed women, disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control. Updating the text to reflect a growing concern about the gendered impact of weapons and the importance of gender diversity in disarmament discussions, the resolution’s co-sponsors sought consensus in order to secure unanimous support for these vital considerations. Yet despite making concessions to those who had been seeking to weaken the resolution, including by removing a reference to gender-based violence (GBV) in an operative paragraph, consensus was not achieved.

A recorded vote was called on a separate, preambular paragraph referencing the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). On this question 139 states accepted the paragraph and 24 abstained. This paragraph encouraged ATT states parties to fully implement all provisions of the Treaty, including the one on preventing armed GBV. Several of those that abstained argued that the ATT is not a “consensus treaty”.

When the ATT was negotiated, under the rule of consensus, some of the largest arms exporters and importers tried (sometimes successfully) to weaken its provisions. Some states worked actively to prevent any provision on GBV. And some tried to prevent the Treaty’s adoption altogether. The rule of consensus meant that the countries pushing for a strong treaty made several compromises in order to bring more skeptical states on board. The final text contains substantial limitations and loopholes, creating the risk that some states might seek to use the Treaty to legitimise rather than stigmatise irresponsible transfers. Clearly this would not constitute proper interpretation or implementation of the spirit or the letter of the Treaty.

At the time, the Liberian representative said the UN had become a victim of its own rules of procedure. Indeed, “consensus” at the UN is often more a barrier to commitment than the engine of its development. Too often it means capitulation to the lowest-common denominator, failing to meet the UN’s high calling to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” As civil society groups addressing First Committee argued in 2013, the rule of consensus, when treated as unanimity, undermines the security of the majority and runs counter to a basic principle of the UN—the sovereign equality of states—by allowing the interests of a small number of hold-outs to trump the interests of all the others.

Whether the objective is preventing GBV, regulating the international arms trade, ending the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, or banning nuclear weapons, states that seek progress must not allow a recalcitrant minority to block their path. Consensus as a process through which general agreement is sought and compromises are made is a key part of diplomacy. Indeed it is a key part of our everyday human interactions. But consensus must not mean that every state has a veto they can wield in order to ensure that they do not have to change their policies or practices or be measured against strong international standards.

We have heard the nuclear-armed states say that the conditions are not right for nuclear disarmament and we must wait until they feel safe enough to begin negotiations. Meanwhile the rest of us live under the threat of use of these weapons of mass destruction. We have heard from arms importers that regulations on arms transfers potentially violate their right to self-defence or sovereignty, and from arms exporters that regulations on certain items are too complicated or that potential risks of violations to international law have to be “overriding”. Meanwhile people are dying from the use of small arms and heavy weapons around the world. We have heard from some that use explosive weapons in populated areas that existing laws are adequate. Meanwhile 80–90% of those killed by this bombing and bombardment of towns and cities are civilians.

But we have also heard, from the majority of states and publics, that prohibiting nuclear weapons, regulating the arms trade, and putting an end to the bombing of towns and cities will enhance their security. These voices represent the real consensus: the overwhelming majority seeking effective change. As the group of NGOs said in 2013, the world needs “an approach to disarmament that is driven by the needs and rights of people most affected by armed violence, not by the discretion of states and others most responsible for it.”