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

Written by

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.

But Russia then took the floor to say that not enough had been done to achieve consensus. A “strange thing has happened”, that “we should simply ignore the rules of procedure”. This, it said, is “quite unacceptable” and “a manipulation of consensus”. Russian delegation categorically opposes this. The President then gave his understanding that one State could block consensus and he took it that Russia was blocking consensus. Iran then asked for the floor and said that everyone has to play by the rules. President concluded that there was no consensus in the room.”

It is clear that consensus does not mean unanimous agreement. Not all States have to express affirmative agreement for a text for it to be adopted by consensus on it. Neutrality on a text or even dislike for it will not be regarded as blocking consensus. To block consensus there will be need to be expression of objection to the text. Or is that expressions of objection? The heart of the ambiguity is that it is not clear whether any expression of objection to the adoption of a text is sufficient to block consensus and prevent adoption of the treaty or relevant decision. In particular, will a single objection block consensus? To allow a single objection to block consensus is to allow one State to veto the treaty or decision. At the Cancun Climate Change Conference in 2010, the Mexican Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, President of the Conference (the 16th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) overruled Bolivia’s express objection to the texts of the final decisions and declared consensus “to thunderous applause.” [Rajamani, “The Cancun Climate Agreements: Reading the Text, Subtext and Tea Leaves”, (2011) 60 ICLQ 499, 515]. So at least Mexico is being consistent. One wonders about Japan though. At the Kampala Review Conference of the parties to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, it was Japan that spoke up, in dramatic fashion, just before the amendments on aggression were adopted. Many feared that Japan was going to block consensus but though the Japanese delegate outlined the problems they had with the text he said Japan would not block consensus. Had Japan really been opposed would it have taken the view that one State could not block consensus?

If a single objection will not suffice, then how many objections are required to block consensus? Even then, does the consensus procedure give a veto to only a few States and allow a tiny minority to hold the majority to ransom? To prevent this can the President of a conference simply declare consensus, while denying delegations that wish to object the right to take the floor to express that objection. Lavanya Rajamani notes that:

“There are examples of presiding officers presuming consensus in the face of imminent opposition. It took such a well-judged presumption to reach agreement on the FCCC. The Chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, Jean Ripert, gaveled the FCCC through with Member States of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Malaysia requesting the floor. The President of the first Conference of Parties, Angela Merkel, gaveled the Berlin Mandate through with member states of OPEC waving their flags. These are instances of imminent but not express opposition.” [Rajamani, “The Cancun Climate Agreements: Reading the Text, Subtext and Tea Leaves”, (2011) 60 ICLQ 499]

To deny States the right to take the floor, in order to prevent them from expressig their opposition to a text, and to create an appearance of consensus seems to be an abuse of office by the presiding officers. The use of this tactic suggest that the officers are themselves aware of a lack of consensus.

Mexico’s view at the ATT conference that there is no established definition of consensus is reminiscent of the view expressed before the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by the President of that Conference: Mr Amerasinghe of Sri Lanka. Amerisinghe argued that UNCLOS should operate by consensus but argued that the consensus procedure should only be contained in a gentleman’s agreement and not in the rules of procedure of the conference. He doubted that one could “possibly write into the rules of procedure a rule to the effect that there should be a consensus, because a consensus is beyond definition; it is impossible of definition.” [cited by Louis Sohn, in “Voting Procedures In United Nations Conferences for  the Codification of International Law” (1975) 69 Am. J. Int’l L. 310 at 333]. Amerasinghe’s views prevailed and UNCLOS became the first major UN conference to seek decision making by consensus. It is perhaps hard to recall how innovative this was at the time. However, the number of writings on the consensus procedure with regard to UNCLOS around the time of the conference is perhaps an indication of how much of a departure from previous practice this was. There were two articles on this in the 1975 American Journal of International Law alone. [the Sohn piece above and Vignes, “Will The Third Conference On The Law Of The Sea Work According To The Consensus Rule? ” (1975) 69 Am. J. Int’l L. 310. Sohn’s AJIL piece was preceded by L. B. Sohn, “United Nations Decision-making, Confrontation of Consensus? (1974) 15 Harv. Int. L. J. 438. AJIL later published Buzan, “Negotiating By Consensus: Developments In Technique At The United Nations Conference On The Law Of The Sea”, (1981) 75 Am. J. Int’l L. 324]

However right from the beginning there has been the fear that decision making by consensus would give vetos to a small minority. For this reason, some States initially objected to attempts to use consensus in UNCLOS, and insisted that in the event of a failure to achieve consensus there should be possibility of decision making by voting. [see discussion in Sohn’s AJIL piece]

The discussion regarding the introduction of the consensus procedure and the insistence that there be a backup procedure of decision making by consensus is instructive in two ways. First of all, that history and the initial opposition to consensus indicates that, at least many, States, were of the view that consensus means that there should be no expressed opposition to the final text. This is the only way in which one can explain the statements that using the consensus procedure should not be regarded as a right to veto the treaty and the insistence that there should be a back-up voting procedure (which ended up being a requirement of a 2/3rds majority). Secondly, UNCLOS demonstrates that if there is a fear the minority being held hostage by the majority, a way out can be provided in advance by having a back up procedure. Indeed, this is what ended up happening with the ATT, as the draft treaty referred to the General Assembly for adoption in that forum.

Although there is a clear downside to adopting the view that the consensus can be blocked by any State expressing objection to a text, there are disadvantages if it were to be established that decisions can be taken by consensus even where objections are expressed. In the first place, it would have to be determined how many objections can be overridden. Just one? Or more? Once a number is established then in reality one is in the terrain of a voting procedure. If one or some objections would not prevent consensus but no particular number of objections not blocking consensus was fixed, a second possible disadvantage would emerge : the possibility that States would not be treated equally. On this scenario, one wonders whether an objection by the United States, Russia or China would be treated the same as that from a smaller country. It is interesting that at the ATT Conference it is only after Russia spoke that the President stated that he understood that one State could block consensus and he took it that Russia was blocking consensus (not Iran, or Syria or North Korea!). Indeed, it should be remembered that it was the larger, more influential States that had originally favoured the consensus procedure at UNCLOS as a means of counteracting the collecting voting power of developing countries.

A third and more important downside to the view that some objections would not block consensus is the effect that this would have on the process of treaty drafting. The very purpose of consensus procedure was to make sure that negotiators carried all States along for as long as possible. The procedure was initiated to make it less likely that the views of particular States would be ignored simply because those States were in a minority or lacked voting power. Consensus means that negotiators need to do their best to ensure that treaty texts reflect the views of the broadest possible group of States. One can only guess that some treaties would have been different if the consensus procedure had not been adopted. If it were clear that the objections of particular States can be overridden, negotiators might have been more tempted not to make as much effort to deal with those objections.

However, the concern that one or very few States might frustrate the will of the international community remains real. As stated above, and as was done at UNCLOS, and at the International Criminal Court’s Kampala Review Conference, perhaps the way forward is to have a back up voting procedure. This would keep consensus as meaning lack of stated objection and presumably reaching agreement by this means would be prized by States as it would signal that the treaty in question was truly global. When that fails though the treaty could still be adopted. It might also be important to identify those treaties where consensus is prized and those were it is might not be.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


No tags available

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post are closed


Lorand Bartels says

April 8, 2013

Art IX:1 fn 1 of the WTO Agreement defines consensus for the purpose of WTO decisions. It states that 'The body concerned shall be deemed to have decided by consensus on a matter submitted for its consideration, if no Member, present at the meeting when the decision is taken, formally objects to the proposed decision.'

Perhaps less well known, the meaning of 'consensus' in the East African Community Treaty was judicially considered in Advisory Opinion 1/2008 of the East African Court of Justice (http://www.eac.int/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=264&Itemid=163). The Court decided that 'consensus' did not imply unanimity, either generally or in the context of the AEC Treaty. The Court based this understanding on a range of sources including, notably, Wikipedia.

Wim Pelt says

April 8, 2013

Consensus is indeed something different from unanimous agreement. Let me quote Kooijmans's view on the difference: unanimous agreement is when everybody is in favour, consensus exists when everybody can live with the results. This can be made operational by letting the chair formulate the decision, and note (truly) that nobody has asked to be heard.

That there are cases where this has not been applied does not make this approach less practical. Otherwise a can of worms is opened (what is an overwhelming majority? Are exceptions presumed implied for security council member? or especially afflicted states?)

When a small number of states prevent consensus, that is not the end of the world. It just means that consensus is not the best procedure to be used in such a case. Adopting a treaty by consensus at least opens the hope that all present will ratify. When the Chair in the case of the ATT had declared consensus while it was clear there was none, I can hardly think that this would have induced Syria to ratify. It would just mean that consensus had lost its meaning and a new term would have to be invented.

American treaty law has its differences from general international law. General international law has moved to the American position on reservations, due to the Advisory Opinion on Reservations to the Genocide Convention. But for the concept of consensus by majority, that is in my opinion not yet the case - and maybe it is my age, but I prefer the present situation.

Yousef Zeidan says

April 9, 2013

Hi Dapo,

Having been there, it was quite interesting that Mexico temporarily did not allow for the adoption, by consensus, of the report of the Conference because one delegation (Mexico) disagreed to some amendments by Iran.

The disagreement was obviously political, there has never been an explicit, written and agreed on meaning of consensus within the United Nations, although there have in the Specialized Agencies, as was quoted by the Syrian Ambassador.

But consensus, in English at least, means without objection.

Yousef Zeidan
Legal Adviser
State of Palestine

Jakob Cornides says

April 10, 2013

The old Romans had a saying: qui tacet consentire videtur. It doesn't mean that in all cases saying nothing means to consent, but it does say that in some cases it can be interpreted that way.

Inversely, if someone explicitly objects to a decision, then very clearly there is no consensus.

To my regret, I therefore am in agreement with Russia, Syria, Iran, and (even worse!) North Korea. Sorry folks!

The alternative would have been to make an agreement that binds all countries except Syria, Iran and North Korea. These three could then trade arms between themselves - but even without them such a treaty could be a great step forward in the fight against arms proliferation.

Dapo Akande says

April 11, 2013

Thanks Lorand for the reference to that decision. I was unaware of it.


Hadi Mahmoudi says

April 13, 2013

Consensus is not something artificial. Even one express objection can destroy everything. we should not cheat ourselves. Consensus may not be well defined but absolutely can be sensed.Moreover, I think consensus has few value in itself because there is a good voting system which is more transparent than consensus. However it is a good sign of establishing the opinio juris necessary for the creation of the customary international law and because of that, it is valuable.

Huma Anbreen says

April 18, 2013

Consensus and voting,both the words if taken generally denote two different procedures.'Consensus' is used where there is a widespread agreement.If each and everyone in a meeting consents to a matter,it is said that they have a consensus.On the other hand voting is a procedure through which the parties give their consent by casting votes and the matter is decided according to the number of votes.
In law meaning of a word depends upon its interpretation.A word can be interpreted in a narrower sense and in a wider
sense but it should not be given a meaning to change its nature completely.
Then to a great extent meaning of a word depends upon the intention of the lawmaker.If we follow the same rule in the present scenario where the rules of procedure at Diplomatic Conference required for the treaty to be adopted by consensus,the President of the conference rightly ruled that the treaty could not be adopted because there was no consensus.

Tim Staal, ACIL says

April 26, 2013

This contribution rightly points at an important difference between consensus and voting in the second before last paragraph. This difference concerns their distinct impact on the balance between powerful and powerless states.

Voting gives even otherwise powerless states an important tool to go against the wishes of powerful states. This is particularly so when voting is done through secret ballot, such as is the practice for many decisions in the Conference of the Parties in CITES. While this may halt 'progress', it also ensures that IF a decision is taken, it is truly supported by a large majority, not just accepted. At the same time, a mere handful of states cannot bar agreement, as is the case with consensus.

Consensus, on the other hand, allows powerful states to push through their agendas in backrooms leading to a single take-it-or-leave-it-text, while they themselves can always stop agreement, as the example of Russia and the ATT shows.

Schachter already noted in 1984 that consensus decision-making would lead to lowest common denominator agreements: Schachter, Oscar, ‘The Nature and Process of Legal Development in International Society’ in D.M.; MacDonald, R. St.J.; Johnston (ed), The Structure and Process of International Law (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1983), 745.
He preferred having no legal agreement at all, until there was something negotiated that amounted to actual obligations, rather than the mere semblance of an agreement.

For environmental issues, game-theorist Scott Barrett has noted that when there are 29 polluters, only 16 treaty parties that commit to 'abatement' of pollution are needed to lead to a better average outcome for all. It is better to have true cooperation that will actually lead to compliance by a minimum number of states needed, than empty cooperation by all states.