Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Essence of Agreement

In my recent post on "Moving closer to an Arms Trade Treaty," I stated that,

As the recent 3rd Biennial Meeting of States to consider implementation of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons demonstrated, many States are losing patience with the low level of results being posted by multilateral disarmament and arms control processes...
An anonymous reader of our blog added,
Seems to me this began not with the BMS, but the more significant agreement of the Oslo Treaty.... surely, it must have shown some of the diplomats that progress is possible...
S/he makes a good point. Certainly, the Oslo Process on cluster munitions, like the Ottawa Process on anti-personnel mines before it, is a clear demonstration of a significant grouping of States (1) losing patience with inadequate or non-existent progress on pressing humanitarian issues and (2) deciding to go outside of the framework of the United Nations in order to achieve collective security goals. The success of these processes has indeed brought home to many disarmament diplomats that 'progress is possible' even if more traditional routes seem to be blocked.

However, it may also have some other, unforeseen effects on multilateral disarmament diplomacy within the United Nations. Many of the States that participated in the Oslo Process and that adopted the new Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in Dublin in May were nevertheless uncomfortable with having to move outside of UN structures to achieve results. Given the choice, they would have preferred to achieve the same result in the UN. Despite its success, therefore, there is not much appetite for moving outside of the UN in order to overcome obstacles in other areas of disarmament and arms control unless these have very clear and tangible benefits.

On the contrary, it would seem that the Oslo Process experience, generally speaking, has actually made States more committed to making progress on disarmament and arms control within UN structures. As such, the Oslo Process has strengthened the UN, not undermined it. It's shaken things up by demonstrating that there are alternatives to traditional processes and that, if the UN wishes to remain relevant in disarmament and arms control, it must deliver results that demonstrably improve state and human security.

These new demands on the UN system would also seem to be leading States to re-assess their understanding of the level of agreement that must exist before progress on any particular issue is possible. More and more States would now seem to be questioning the hitherto widely-accepted notion that that negotiations on issues related to security, disarmament and arms control must proceed on the basis of what has become known as 'consensus.' The most fundamental question that is being asked is, 'What does agreement by consensus actually mean?'

So, what does 'consensus' mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it means "general agreement or concord." Dictionary.com prefers "majority of opinion." So, the first thing to understand, obviously, is that consensus is not the same as unanimity, where absolutely everyone is in agreement. The concept of consensus encompasses the possibility of disagreement. Consensus means that almost all parties agree.

This (and in my view correct) understanding of consensus has been largely overshadowed in disarmament diplomacy by an interpretation that equates consensus with unanimity, thereby granting de facto veto power to every party to a negotiation. What's more, some States have become so used - or, indeed, addicted - to wielding veto power that they no longer think twice about blocking progress that is obviously desired by most, or even all, other UN Member States.

One of the perhaps unintended consequences of the success of the Oslo Process is that this overly restrictive interpretation of consensus is now being reconsidered. The concept of consensus is perhaps finally being rehabilitated and put in its proper context.

A clear illustration of this is the vote that took place at the end of the 3rd Biennial Meeting of States to monitor implementation of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (see "UN small arms process 'back on track'"). In that instance, Iran was the only hold-out on an agreement to move the UN small arms process forward. A few years ago, Iran's action might have scuppered the possibility of an agreement. This time, the many other States that wanted an agreement did not shy away from voting to settle the issue. In the end, Iran, joined by Zimbabwe, decided to abstain from voting. All other States present and voting (134 in all) voted in favour and the agreement passed.

This is how the consensus mechanism should work. If this new way of working becomes more widely applied to disarmament and arms control negotiations, we may well see more progress being made, albeit with some States deciding to opt out. And the need to make progress in disarmament and arms control is, I think, something on which we can all agree.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: José Puche's 1998 'Monumento a la Paz y a la Concordia' (Monument to Peace and Agreement), Plaza de la Vírgen, Valencia, Spain. Photo by henneorla on Flickr.