(aa) Roll-call Vote, Electronic Voting System
74 With the introduction of electronic voting devices the voting by show of hands or by sitting and standing and the roll-call vote (for the procedure see Rule 87a),52 which are mentioned in Rule 87 as the ‘normal’ means of voting, have been practically replaced by a mechanical recorded vote (Rule 87b). A roll-call vote can still be requested by any representative, but when an electronic voting system is available, a roll-call vote should as far as possible not be requested (Rules, Annex VII, para 2). The last roll-call in Plenary was recorded on 9 December 1992, during the 47th regular session, on the subject of Antarctica.
75 In case of error delegates may ask for correction of their vote. Following a ruling of the President at the 15th session, a request for correction of a vote after the closure of the voting procedure can be granted where the result of the vote has not yet been proclaimed.53 Since the introduction of mechanical means, however, belated requests to change a vote after the voting machine has been locked are no longer granted; in practice the locking of the voting machine is announced in advance by the chair to give delegations a last chance to check their vote. Delegations who cast their vote erroneously may advise the Secretariat that they had intended to vote differently; this does not change the result, but their declaration is reflected in the meeting record.
(p. 709) (bb) Adoption without a Vote and Consensus
76 Whereas the League of Nations required unanimity on all decisions of any importance, it seemed natural for the victorious ‘United Nations’ after World War II to follow a democratic approach and allow for majority vote as the standard procedure of decision-making. But with the expansion of UN membership the interests and positions of member States have become more and more divergent, and ‘natural’ majorities shifted away from the old founding members. It also became apparent, though, that resorting to a vote does not really lead towards the solution of world problems which require the commitment of all States. International cooperation could not be secured either by ignoring the majority or by out-voting the minority.54 The Rules, however, do not make reference to decision-making other than by voting. So for the reasons above, and in the exercise of its discretion to organize its own procedure, the UN has developed methods of decision-making which aim to arrive at an agreement on the terms of a resolution or decision without having to resort to a formal vote (‘consensus’).55 Over the years it has become established practice of the GA and its Main Committees to strive for such ‘consensus’ wherever possible.
77 One has to differentiate, though, between consensus-seeking as a negotiating technique and consensus as a method of taking decisions without a vote.56 Going for consensus in negotiations means that all participants should make every effort—through consultations and negotiations,57 by trying to explore all possibilities for compromise, and by a readiness to accept, in the end, a mutual give-and-take on all sides—to come to an agreement and achieve a decision that is sufficiently acceptable to be adopted without a vote. Consensus implies that in the end all delegations can go along with the decision, however reluctantly, and that even those who are not in complete agreement are prepared not to block, or ask for a vote on, the decision. The difference to other forms of decision-making lies in the fact that delegations are indeed committed to making every effort possible to integrate all views and to find a formula which all participants in a negotiation can go along with. While this may help to arrive at solutions accepted by all, the inherent danger lies in the fact that it may indeed stall the taking of a decision, as a small minority may always ask for continuation, claiming that not all possibilities for a consensus have been exhausted.58
(p. 710) 78 As a method of decision-making the consensus procedure simply means that—in the absence of a specific request for a vote—draft resolutions and decisions are adopted without a vote.59 In cases where the presiding officer, who is of course familiar with the negotiating history of the proposal that is up for adoption, has not received any specific request for a vote and has good reasons to believe that the committee or the GA is indeed prepared to skip the vote, he will ask whether, in the absence of any objection, he ‘may take it that the Committee/the General Assembly wishes to adopt the proposal without a vote?’ It is then up to a delegation to block the adoption of the proposal by lodging an objection or by specifically requesting a vote on the proposal. It is for the objecting delegation to formulate the grounds for its objection, which has the same effect as requesting a vote on the proposal. If there is no such request or objection, the presiding officer will then simply declare that ‘it is so decided’, ie that the GA has decided to adopt the text without voting. Delegations who do not wish to join such a ‘consensus’ but who, for political reasons, are equally reluctant to call for a vote, can declare their non-committal and distance themselves from the consensus in an oral explanation. This declaration will be reflected in the meeting records, but politically the resolution will be counted as a ‘consensus text’ nonetheless.
79 The same practice of adopting resolutions without a vote has emerged even in cases where parts of a proposal have been voted on separately. Despite a vote on parts of a resolution, the text as a whole can still be adopted without a vote if no vote on the entirety of the text is being requested.60 The practice of adopting decisions without a vote is also being used for the large number of technical and other uncontroversial resolutions and decisions. In UN parlance, however, they too are often referred to as ‘consensus resolutions’ even though no difficult negotiations may have taken place at all.
80 In legal terms resolutions adopted without a vote are no more or less ‘binding’ than those adopted ‘only’ by a vote, as under Art. 13 all GA resolutions are generally only recommendations. The difference between the two types of adoption is political. Whether and to what extent a resolution adopted without a vote is really supported by all member States is a matter of interpretation and has to be determined by taking into account the entire negotiating and decision-making history of the text, including any declarations made upon its adoption.
81 The consensus procedure, even though it is today the preferred method of reaching decisions in the practice of UN organs, has actually never been expressly referred to in the body of the GA’s Rules of Procedure. The first UN body to have officially introduced ‘consensus’ as its procedure of decision-making was the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1961. Since then its use has rapidly spread to other subsidiary organs of the GA. But only very few other bodies have formally agreed on using it as their prevalent mode of decision-making, either in their rules of procedure61 or in the form of an understanding read into the records by their chairperson. At the universal level, the 1974 World Population Conference was ‘to reach decisions on the basis of consensus, which is understood to mean, according to UN practice, general agreement without vote, but not necessarily unanimity’;62 another famous example is the UN Conference on the Law of (p. 711) the Sea, where, after a long and bitter debate on methods of work in the First Committee at the 28th session in 1973, a statement by the President of the Conference was appended to the rules of procedure that ‘the Conference should make every effort to reach agreement on substantive matters by way of consensus and there should be no voting on such matters until all efforts at consensus have been exhausted’.63 The Rules themselves made clear, however, that after a determination that all efforts at reaching general agreement had been exhausted, putting such a matter to the vote was indeed still possible.64
82 As to the GA, the Special Committee on the Rationalization of the Procedures and Organization of the GA in 1971 considered in its report, ‘that the adoption of decisions and resolutions by consensus is desirable when it contributes to the effective and lasting settlement of differences’, but also emphasized ‘that the right of every member state to set forth its views in full must not be prejudiced by this procedure’. That recommendation was not formally incorporated into, but appended to the Rules in an Annex (see Rules, Annex V, para 104).
83 The consensus principle was again one of the key issues during the debate concerning the budget reform at the 41st session. Following a legal opinion by the Legal Counsel of the SG, who affirmed the legality of the procedure, the GA adopted without a vote a resolution whereby it agreed ‘that the Committee for Programme Coordination should continue its existing practice of reaching decisions by consensus’ and considered it ‘desirable that the Fifth Committee, before submitting its recommendations on the outline of the programme budget to the General Assembly in accordance with the provisions of the Charter and the rules of procedure, should continue to make all possible efforts with a view to establishing the broadest possible agreement’. But the GA also took care to put both recommendations under the umbrella affirmation ‘that the decision-making process is governed by the provisions of the Charter of the UN and the rules of procedure of the GA’ (UNGA Res 41/213 (19 December 1986)).