January 2014 Monthly Forecast

In Hindsight: Consensus in the Security Council


Since the three vetoes by Russia and China over Syria in 2011 and 2012 and the inability of the Security Council to find a solution to the conflict, there has been a common perception that the Council is divided. Likewise, following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Council was viewed as having become badly fractured. However, looking at decisions adopted, the Council is actually divided on just a limited number of issues and otherwise largely operates by consensus (see the supplemental insert in this Forecast on Non-Consensus Decision-Making in the Security Council: An Abridged History).

Presidential statements require consensus, and press statements are issued only with the agreement of all 15 members. All sanctions committees, with a few exceptions, and working groups also operate by consensus. Resolutions, which are put to a vote, are the only Council outcome that can be adopted with or without the unanimity of the Council. Most resolutions, however, have been adopted by consensus: 93.5 percent of those adopted since 2000 to 15 December 2013. Contrary to public perceptions, this is a noticeable increase from 88.9 percent in the 1990s, a period when the Security Council was viewed as highly active and comparatively more effective and less divided due to the end of the Cold War.

Of the issues on which decisions have been adopted, only a few have generated frequent division. Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina account for 34.1 percent of Council resolutions adopted without consensus since 1990. Including the rest of the Middle East (Israel-Palestine and Lebanon) and the Balkans more broadly, these two regions account for 53.2 percent of the non-consensus resolutions adopted since 1990.

Moreover, Middle East resolutions have also been adopted with the lowest levels of support, further reflecting Council divisiveness over this region. Over the last 23 years, the Council has adopted only one resolution with just the minimum nine votes required and six resolutions with just 10 Council members in favor. Of these, four were related to the Middle East (two on Iraq and two on Lebanon) and two were on nearby Libya.

On the other hand, the Council has had a much more consensual approach on African issues, with just 20.6 percent of Africa-related resolutions since 1990 not adopted by consensus. Excluding Sudan, this falls to 11.1 percent, or just 14 resolutions on Africa. This number drops even further when Libya is excluded, the next least consensual African issue, with four non-consensus resolutions.

Cyprus, for decades not viewed as a divisive issue, has been responsible for seven resolutions not adopted by consensus since 2009.

Consensus in Council decision-making seems to be the preferred mode even during years that generated bitter feelings among members. Despite recent divisions on Syria or prior to and following the 2003 Iraq war, consensus resolutions during these periods still prevailed at levels above 92 percent. Thus, it seems that either the Council looks at the merits of each situation instead of allowing divisions on specific issues to permeate into its other work or it makes a more concerted effort to at least appear united on other fronts.

The increase in consensus since 2000 can be explained in part by a change in how China votes: it abstained on 42 adopted resolutions during the 1990s whereas it has only done so 16 times since 2000. This might indicate that China is attaching more importance to being aligned with Council decisions or becoming more adept at getting what it wants during the negotiation of resolutions. Russia has been the second most frequently abstaining permanent member since 1990, having done so on 40 resolutions.

Interestingly, whereas France abstained or did not vote on seven adopted resolutions since 1990, the UK has never done so on any of the adopted resolutions during this period. The UK, though, has abstained 13 times on draft resolutions that failed to be adopted, nine of which accompanied US vetoes. It also abstained or opposed all six draft resolutions that missed obtaining nine affirmative votes since 1990, the latest being the failed draft resolution requesting an ICC deferral on the Kenyan situation. The US has abstained on eight resolutions since 2000, compared to two abstentions during the 1990s, a period seen as marking a high point in US power. The fact that the P3 have mostly accompanied the consensus or the enabling majorities adopting the resolutions may be a product of their role as the pen holders on most Council agenda items.

Elected members have cast 23 total votes against adopted resolutions since 1990, an average of once a year. However, Cuba alone did so nine times in 1990-1991, whereas Turkey did so five times in 2009-2010. Regarding abstentions, they have totaled 94 since 1990, and have become less frequent in recent years. This downward trend is also noticeable in the multiple Council terms served by Brazil, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Among elected members, within a single term, Cuba has logged the greatest number of non-consensual votes, opposing nine resolutions and abstaining on four during its 1990-1991 term. Pakistan and Brazil have been among the most frequent to break ranks during multiple terms by abstaining or voting against 12 and 10 resolutions respectively.

Differences can also be observed among regions. Arab states have abstained or cast dissenting votes 33 times. Latin American and Caribbean states follow with 29 and Asian states, excluding Arab states, have withheld affirmative votes 24 times.

Sub-Saharan African countries, despite being the most vociferous about the Council not taking African positions into full account, have mostly voted in favor of Council resolutions, abstaining or casting negative votes 20 times, and on only four resolutions since 2000. Until Azerbaijan abstained five times in its 2012-2013 term, Eastern European states had never broken consensus since 1990.

Perhaps Council members today place more of a premium on consensus. The argument for adopting resolutions by consensus is that when the Council has a united voice, it makes it harder for the party targeted by the decision to play Council members against each other. Of course, a potential downside in pursuing resolutions with strict consensus is that stronger language is lost.

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