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What is the Meaning of “Consensus” in International Decision Making?

Published on April 8, 2013        Author: 
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On 28 March, the negotiators at the Final UN Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty failed to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty (see BBC report here) by consensus.  A few days later the Arms Trade Treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (by a vote of 154 in favour, three against and 23 abstentions – for a really useful account of the negotiations see the Arms Trade Treaty Legal Blog). At the Diplomatic Conference, the rules of procedure required that the treaty be adopted by “consensus”. However, at the end of that conference, Syria, Iran and North Korea objected to the text. According to the bloggers at the ATT Legal Blog there then ensued a discussion of whether the objection by these three States could stand in the way of the adoption of the treaty by consensus, with some States taking the view that acceptance of the text by the overwhelming majority of States was sufficient to establish consensus despite the expressed opposition of three States. However, the President of the Conference ruled that there was no consensus and that the treaty could not be adopted.

The wranglings about the meaning of “consensus” have a broad importance for decision-making with regard to treaties and in other international conferences. Since the 1970s it has become standard practice in many important diplomatic conferences that decisions are taken, where possible, by consensus. Although this procedural device is ubiquitous, as well as being important for the way in which international law is made, the arguments at the ATT conference lay bare the ambiguity that lies at the heart of this concept. There is no consensus on the meaning of “consensus”. The consensus procedure is an important device for achieving broad based agreement on international treaties. It is therefore important to have some clarity on what it means. Lack of clarity on the procedure might well have an adverse impact on the process by which treaties and other international decisions are reached with the result that the substantive outcomes might be less desirable.

The ATT Legal Blog reports that:

Mexico said that the overwhelming majority of States were in a position to adopt the treaty text. Mexico suggested to proceed to the adoption of the text as there is no established definition of the term “consensus” in the United Nations. Nigeria supported Mexico. Japan also supported Mexico. Costa Rica then supported Mexico’s statement. Chile then supported Mexico’s statement. Colombia “resolutely” supported Mexico. Read the rest of this entry…

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