What does it mean when a decision is taken “by consensus”?
Last Updated: Sep 10, 2019
Multilateral diplomacy is at times complicated. Getting tens or hundreds of Member States to agree on a text can be challenging. Over time, various ways of coming to agreement have emerged in the practice of the UN organs. Some of the ways resolutions and decisions may be adopted include:
- by vote, or
- without a vote, or
- by consensus.
When a vote is taken and all Member States vote the same way, the decision is unanimous. When a decision is taken by consensus, no formal vote is taken. A 2005 Legal Opinion distinguishes consensus as follows: consensus "is understood as the absence of objection rather than a particular majority" (UN Juridical Yearbook 2005, page 457). Resolutions and decisions adopted by consensus are considered as "adopted without a vote", although they are distinct from decisions made under the without-a-vote procedure.
Although the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly (A/520/Rev.18) do not mention decision-making by consensus, “it is the long-established practice of the General Assembly and its Main Committees to strive for consensus wherever possible” (Oppenheim’s International Law United Nations).
The Conclusions of the Special Committee on the Rationalization of the Procedures and Organization of the General Assembly, annexed to the Rules of Procedure, consider “that the adoption of decisions and resolutions by consensus is desirable when it contributes to the effective and lasting settlement of differences, thus strengthening the authority of the United Nations” (A/520/Rev.18).
Decision-making by consensus governed the 19th regular session (1964-1965), and has since this time played a substantial role in the practice of the General Assembly. The number of Member States has increased over time, and according to Oppenheim's, the preference for consensus reflects that the interests and positions of Member States have become more diverse as well. As decisions of the General Assembly express the opinion or will of the organ as a whole, it is desirable to reach the widest possible agreement among the States.
Consensus is reached when all Member States agree on a text, but it does not mean that they all agree on every element of a draft document. They can agree to adopt a draft resolution without a vote, but still have reservations about certain parts of the text. They can explain their position either before or after action is taken on the resolution.
Resolutions or other substantive decisions of the Security Council can be adopted without a vote. "There is no legal difference between decisions adopted through a voting process and those which, without a vote, are declared adopted by consensus or acclamation by the Council President. Rather, the distinction is only a political one. In some earlier cases, adopting a resolution by consensus allowed Council members for whom the decision was sensitive to support it without being seen as having cast an affirmative vote. In later cases, the purpose of adoptions without a vote has generally been to signal the high degree of unanimity among the Council members behind a particular decision" (The Procedure of the UN Security Council, 4th Ed. by Sievers, and Daws, p. 337).
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