Download a PDF of the complete table: The Procedural Vote
The voting procedure of the Security Council is governed by Article 27 of the UN Charter and Rule 40 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure. Article 27 provides that decisions of the Security Council are made by an affirmative vote of nine members, whereas each member has one vote. The Charter distinguishes, however, between votes on “procedural matters” and votes on “all other matters”. Article 27 stipulates that the concurring votes of the permanent members are required for the adoption of substantive decisions. Accordingly, when voting on procedural matters, a negative vote cast by a permanent member does not invalidate a decision, the decision stands if it secured nine affirmative votes. (Conversely, Article 27 of the Charter, by requiring the concurring votes of all permanent members for a non-procedural decision to be adopted, establishes the veto system.)
During the UN’s early history, there have been divergences as to what constituted a procedural or substantive issue. In resolution 267(III) of 14 April 1949, the General Assembly recommended to the Security Council to consider as procedural several types of issues listed in detail in an annex. These included:
- submission to the General Assembly of any questions relating to the maintenance of international peace and security;
- request to the General Assembly that it make a recommendation on a dispute or situation the Council is seized of;
- request to the Secretary-General for the convocation of a special session of the General Assembly;
- approval of annual reports to the General Assembly;
- holding of meetings at places other than the seat of the UN; or
- establishment of subsidiary organs the Council deems necessary for the performance of its functions.
Nonetheless, disagreements regarding the definition continued. In the first several years this resulted in a vote first on the nature of the matter—i.e. procedural or substantive—followed by a second vote on the matter at hand. The first vote was referred to as a vote on the “preliminary question”, in keeping with the terminology used at the San Francisco conference that established the UN. Depending on the outcome of the vote on the preliminary question, the Council would then proceed to a procedural or substantive vote.
Over time, Council practice indicated an acceptance of the procedural nature of certain issues. These have included, for example, whether or not to include an agenda item, to convene or suspend a meeting, to call for an emergency session of the General Assembly, or to extend invitations to participate in Council meetings. In the period 1946-1991, 160 procedural votes were recorded.
Since the end of the Cold War, resort to procedural votes became less frequent, with some years during that period—1993 through 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007 through 2013–registering none. Most procedural decisions—such as the adoption of the agenda, an invitation to an individual to participate in a Council meeting or adding a new item to the agenda—have usually been arrived at by consensus achieved in informal consultations. All but two proposals put to a procedural vote in the period from 1992 through 2013 were adopted. The vote tally on these procedural motions, however, has demonstrated how controversial they have been. Only one of them received more than 11 affirmative votes, and one received the bare minimum of votes (nine) needed for adoption. Furthermore, procedural motions have often related to issues that had been or would be the subject of vetoes. Drafts on Israel/Palestine have frequently been vetoed by the US. There have also been procedural motions related to Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Syria since the mid-2000s; resolutions on these issues have been the subject of vetoes.
Procedural votes became more frequent starting in December 2014 when a vote was taken on the adding of the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the Council agenda. Ten more procedural votes have been taken since, five of them on the adoption of the agenda for a meeting on an already existing item (as stated in rule 9 of the Council’s rules of procedure, the first item of the provisional agenda for each meeting of the Council shall be the adoption of the agenda). It has been the practice of the Council to adopt the agenda without a vote unless an objection is raised. If differences over the agenda cannot be worked out among Council members, they are resolved by a procedural vote. Five out of the 11 proposals put to a procedural vote between 2014 through March 2019 were rejected and four were adopted by the bare minimum of nine votes required for the motion to pass. During that period, in anticipation of a procedural vote on some proposals, nine or more member states had made the proposals in writing through a letter to the Council president, thus ensuring that the procedural motion would be adopted.
The fact that procedural votes are occurring more frequently—there have been 11 since 2014, whereas there were only two in the decade prior to that—may be a reflection of the difficult dynamics in the Council in recent times, as well as of the willingness of members to push for the Council to address specific issues, in spite of opposition from some members. Procedural votes can also be viewed as a useful way to of raise awareness and create a record of the Council’s efforts to engage on critical issues.