In Hindsight: Formulating the Motion to be Put to a Procedural Vote
Security Council procedural votes—which require nine votes in favour to be adopted and cannot be vetoed by a permanent member—remain rare, with a recent high of four such votes in 2018. From 1946 through 1989, there were 153 procedural votes, and since 1990 there have been only 28. Since the end of the Cold War, most procedural decisions—adopting the agenda for a particular meeting; adding a new item to the “seizure list”, as the list of all formal agenda items is known; or inviting an individual to participate in a Council meeting—have been arrived at by consensus during consultations.
However, the vote tally on the 28 procedural votes recorded since 1990 demonstrates how divided the Council was on most of these issues. Setting aside the ten procedural votes between March 1990 and December 1992 that were called by the US regarding the participation of the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in meetings, in which the US was the only member voting against, most of the remaining 18 decisions were adopted or rejected by a narrow margin of votes. Thirteen of those votes have taken place since 2014. That year and the next two each featured one procedural vote. In 2017, there were three such votes, and in 2018, four. There were two procedural votes in 2019 and one so far in 2020.
Procedural votes are taken during formal Council meetings and, unlike other Council decisions, neither require nor generate a written document. The procedural question is presented by the president orally just before the vote. The fact that the Council held no formal meetings for several months during the COVID-19 pandemic and developed a purely written voting procedure during the Chinese presidency in March may be a factor in the dip in procedural votes in 2020 (S/2020/253).
Often, the decision to be voted on is articulated in the room, on an ad hoc basis, just before the vote. Eventually, the president of the Council restates the question for everyone to be clear; sometimes, what exactly is being decided creates differences of opinion, or competing questions are put forward. It is up to the president to formulate the eventual motion to be put to a vote.
Such was the case during the discussion preceding the most recent procedural vote, on 5 October (S/PV.8764). Russia, the October presidency, decided to hold the monthly briefing on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in public, although it usually takes place in consultations. In addition to Izumi Nakamitsu, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who usually briefs on the Syria chemical weapons issues, the presidency invited José Bustani, a former director of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to brief. The European members of the Council (Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, and the UK) and the US objected, arguing that Bustani, who left the OPCW more than a decade before the Council began considering the Syria chemical weapons file, lacked the relevant expertise. Speaking on behalf of the six members, the UK asked the presidency to put the issue of the proposed briefer to a procedural vote.
An unusual public discussion ensued—with China, France and Germany also taking the floor—about how the question should be phrased. Russia suggested that the procedural question should be “Who is opposed to Mr. José Bustani briefing today’s meeting?” The UK countered that the question should be “The Russian Federation wishes to propose this briefer. Who supports it?” France suggested re-phrasing the question as “Do you agree that Mr. Bustani should brief the Council?” After several minutes’ discussion on whether to vote on all the questions and in which order, the Permanent Representative of Russia, in his capacity as Council president, announced that he would “not insist, unless other delegations should, on deciding as to which proposal shall be put to the vote first” and would “put to the vote the question whether the Council agrees to invite Mr. José Bustani to brief it today”. Three members—China, Russia and South Africa—voted affirmatively, six voted against, and six abstained. The agreement on the briefer was thus not adopted because it failed to obtain the nine affirmative votes required on a procedural vote. The Council then proceeded to hear the briefing from Nakamitsu. Taking the floor in his national capacity during the discussion that followed, the Russian representative, in addition to his own comments, read out the statement prepared by Bustani.
How procedural questions are formulated and in what order they are put to a vote is sometimes part of an intricate political strategy. On one occasion, in 2000, several members wanted to block the participation of the representative of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in a debate on the situation in the Balkans on the grounds that it was inappropriate for the Council to hear from a representative of a country whose senior leadership was at the time under indictment by a tribunal unanimously established by the Council, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Russia supported the Yugoslav representative’s participation and suggested a procedural vote to collectively approve or reject all the speakers planned for that meeting; they included the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Balkans and the High Representative for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as the participation of concerned member states, under Rule 37 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure.
The presidency (France) suggested that three separate procedural votes be held: on member states’ asking to participate under Rule 37, on the two high-level envoys’ participation, and on the participation of the Yugoslav diplomat. Russia insisted that a single procedural vote be held on all those wishing to participate. The presidency thus asked Council members to “take a single decision on all the requests, considered as a whole”, stressing that this “would mean that the Council would either accept all the requests or reject them all”. The president also signalled that should the Russian proposal fail to be adopted, he would “follow the procedure that I myself have proposed” (S/PV.4164). The single decision received four votes in favour and failed to be adopted. The Council then adopted by no-objection procedure the list of member states asking to participate under Rule 37 and the invitation for the UN and the EU envoys to brief. A separate vote was then held on the proposal to invite the representative of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to participate. This motion received four votes in favour and was not adopted.
Most, but not all, procedural votes are held in public. Sometimes a procedural vote is called with the knowledge that the proposal will not be adopted, precisely in order to establish a public record of the Council’s efforts on a particular issue. On one occasion in the post-Cold War period—the July 2005 vote on the decision to add the situation in Zimbabwe to the Council’s agenda and hold a briefing on it—the vote was conducted in a private meeting with the vote results (approving the proposal) provided in a communiqué issued afterwards (S/PV.5237).
One could argue that for pragmatic reasons, taking a procedural vote—rather than engaging in painstaking, sometimes multi-day informal consultations—could be an efficient use of the Council’s time. Nevertheless, at present there seems to be considerable acrimony associated with resorting to procedural votes. Their use may signal more complicated Council dynamics, in particular among its permanent members.