Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 8, No. 6

Editorial: The tyranny of consensus
13 June 2016

Ray Acheson

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Two years ago, we encouraged states and other actors to move away from maintenance of the UNPoA towards creation once again. To not just simply reaffirm past practice and uphold existing norms but to tackle the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA)’s serious unfinished business—such as ammunition, new technologies, manufacturing, and gender dynamics of gun violence and proliferation. The Chair and many member states made a concerted effort to do so with this Biennial Meeting of States (BMS)—and in many respects succeeded in connecting UNPoA implementation efforts with other important initiatives and considerations. Yet the tyranny of consensus once again prevented the adoption of an outcome document with robust new commitments to take on old challenges.

The pursuit of consensus meant that the word “ammunition” does not even appear in the final draft of the outcome document, nor does a direct reference to the Arms Trade Treaty. Both are referred to obliquely. A convoluted paragraph 9 notes that some states apply relevant provisions of the UNPoA to “material additional to that mentioned in the ITI definition of small arms and light weapons, while recognizing that other States were of the view that such material was outside the scope of the PoA.” Similarly, paragraph 109 on assessing the risk of diversion commits states to put in place regulations “consistent with the existing responsibilities of States under relevant international law.” Both paragraphs go out of their way to say something without actually saying it, because a small minority of states didn’t want the document to say it at all.

As other articles in this edition point out, there are many positive elements of this outcome document. In many respects, BMS6 has been more successful than any of its predecessors. However, limitations were imposed once again by the abuse of consensus. This is not the first time we have had to write about this crippling phenomenon.

The abuse of the rule of consensus by a handful of states has played a significant role in preventing progress on reducing the human suffering caused by weapons. The last multilateral treaty on weapons that was adopted by consensus within the UN was the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992. Since then, the international community has repeatedly failed to adopt treaties while using this rule.

This state of affairs negates a basic principle of the UN and especially its General Assembly—the sovereign equality of states—by allowing the interest of one or a handful of states to trump the interests of all the others. Unanimity is a good goal in that it promotes a principle of giving equal consideration to all views, regardless of other interests and positions. But more often than not, it simply results in a lowest common denominator outcome dictated by those opposed to progress. Some governments argue that the rule of consensus protects their security interests, but it in fact undermines the security of the majority—both governments and peoples—that must rely on the rule of law rather than the balance of terror to protect them. 

As Nigeria’s delegation said during the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations, the process of developing such law is about “enhancing the rule of law against the rule of the gun.” A handful of countries must not be allowed to hold back the rest of the international community in tackling some of the most dramatic problems of our age.

This article draws upon a civil society presentation on disarmament machinery and consensus, which was drafted by Reaching Critical Will and supported by a large number of NGOs and was delivered to the UN General Assembly First Committee in October 2012, as well as on an editorial in the ATT Monitor on 29 March 2013.

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