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Decision-making by consensus
The most common mechanism used for reaching decisions in multilateral situations is the vote with the requirement that the decision be arrived at either by a simple majority or by a fraction greater than one-half, usually two-thirds or three-quarters. What that entails is a counting of the votes and a determination of the decision by a simple arithmetic computation. It is an uncomplicated mechanism. Decision-making by consensus, is however more difficult and can be contentious. In such cases, the decision rests on the Presiding Officer, who, on the conclusion of discussions announces the decision. The Presiding Officer either does so in his/her own deliberated judgement or, as is often the case, after holding consultations with others - for example, a bureau, a `group of friends’ or poles of opinion and influence. In the final analysis however, the decision taken is based upon the assessment of the Presiding Officer.
The Non-Alignment Movement utilises consensus as the method of arriving at decisions. Consensus, as practised in the Non-Aligned Movement, is not synonymous with unanimity. In other words, each participant does not have to support the decision; and reservations to it can be made. Decisions by consensus, can involve subjectivity and engender disagreement. At the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned Countries, held in Georgetown in 1972, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam applied to upgrade its status in the Movement from that of Observer, which was granted at the Summit Meeting in Lusaka in 1970, to one of full member. The issue was debated extensively. While many participants supported the granting of the request of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), a number of them, especially from Asia and in particular South East Asia, were of the view that the decision of the Lusaka Conference should be upheld. Indonesia said that the PRG “should remain in Observer status until the fighting in Vietnam had ceased and the Vietnamese people were in a position to express their true wishes under peaceful conditions”. At the conclusion of the debate, the Chairman, who had conducted extensive consultations, announced his decision as follows:
“(a) that there was a consensus in favour of acceding to the request of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam to participate as a member in the present Conference of Foreign Ministers, and of forwarding to the Heads of State or Government at their next Conference, the application for general membership with a note to the effect that an overwhelming majority of member states, represented at the Conference, recommended its acceptance;
(b) that notwithstanding such consensus, the records of the Conference would give expression to the positions of dissent and reservation that continue to be held by some Member States.”
This decision did not find favour with some representatives. Indonesia, Malaysia and Laos expressed their displeasure and did not take any further part in the Conference. They made it clear however that their withdrawal from the Conference did not signify the end of their relationship with the Non-Aligned Movement.
The matter however, did not end there. The next Non-Aligned Meeting was held in Kabul, Afghanistan, in May 1973. It was a Meeting of the Committee mandated to prepare for the Third Conference of Heads of State and Government scheduled to be held in Algiers in 1973. Inscribed on the Agenda of the Preparatory Meeting was an item entitled “Consideration of the need to formulate the guidelines on the concept or decision making by consensus at Non-Aligned Meetings.” This item was inscribed as a result of the dissatisfaction of certain delegations, with the decision at the Georgetown Meeting regarding the upgrading of the membership of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam.
I led the Guyana delegation to the Kabul Meeting and was given the tightest and toughest instructions I have ever received for any assignment involving negotiations either bilaterally or multilaterally. In essence, I was to forestall any attempt to reopen the Georgetown decision with a view to challenging the consensus. The situation was compounded by the difficulty in making telephone and other contact from Kabul to Georgetown, thus denying opportunities for effecting consultations and seeking guidance. In order to achieve the objective, I held informal consultations with a number of delegations whose views were believed to be either coincident with or close to those of Guyana. The delegations consulted, included those of Tanzania, Zambia, India, Yugoslavia and Algeria, and I received their understanding. In the result consideration of the item in plenary session was limited to an exchange of views between leaders of delegations. The formulation of a conclusion was the result more of informal consultations than of plenary discussions. The Chairman (Afghanistan) was kept fully informed of, and involved in, the informal consultations. With his concurrence, efforts were directed towards drafting a ‘consensus’ decision on the agenda item. India took the lead role in the drafting exercise. Meanwhile, the leader of the Indonesian delegation with whom I had previously developed a good relationship, indicated to me that his objective was not to upset the Georgetown decision. Indonesia however desired that the Meeting come up with a form of words which would give reassurance to those states which disagreed with the Georgetown consensus including of course, his own. With this in mind therefore, the drafters set about producing a document, which while respecting the decision of Georgetown, would take account of the sentiments of countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. In the result, language satisfactory to all the parties was found and an agreed statement read by the Chairman. The most salient part of the Chairman’s statement read as follows, “After broad consultations among members of the Preparatory Committee, I am glad to report that there is a universal feeling that decisions must continue to be made by consensus, and that old and established procedures which have now become traditional for the conduct of our Meetings must continue to be followed. There is a conviction that we should continue as before with consultations at all levels to arrive at solutions to contentious issues; that there should be reciprocal give and take with a view to accommodating all shades of opinion; that member countries should try to be as flexible as possible with a view to accommodating the views of each other ...” The Chairman’s statement ended as follows, “I have no doubt that all these points will continue to guide the group in its deliberations and will assist us in our endeavours in the future.” The statement satisfied Indonesia and Malaysia, members of the Preparatory Committee who had objected to the Georgetown decision. They participated fully in subsequent Non-Aligned Meetings. The statement was also well received by the general membership of the Movement.
The United Nations
It has become the practice at the United Nations for more and more decisions to be made by consensus. Often, however, a consensus can only be announced when major powers signify their concurrence with it. In a certain sense therefore, when decision-making by consensus is applied in the General Assembly, it can be interpreted that major powers are in fact behaving as if they are exercising vetoes which some of them have in the Security Council.
In the Security Council itself, decisions are normally taken by voting. On occasions however, decisions are arrived at by consensus. Most of such decisions are usually on procedural matters on which there is no disagreement. However, decision by consensus is sometimes employed on substantive issues. One such occasion arose when I served as President of the Security Council in June 1976. It was a situation, which gave an interesting manifestation of the application of the principle of consensus.
I had guided consultations on the drafting of a resolution dealing with the situation in South Africa as a consequence of the Soweto massacre perpetrated by the law enforcement forces of apartheid South Africa. All members of the Council supported the general thrust of the draft resolution though some of them, including ones who possessed the veto, were unhappy with certain provisions. In my judgement as President, it was a balanced draft resolution and I believed that such a resolution, if adopted, would send a positive signal to the majority of the international community who were appalled by the brutality and savagery of the South African police and would welcome a clear demonstration of the Security Council’s abhorrence of these actions and the ensuing tragedy. I was therefore concerned that the public expressions of reservations could conceivably weaken the impact of the resolution. I accordingly endeavoured, through further private consultations, to persuade those members who had reservations on particular aspects of the draft resolution to accept a formula whereby they would not need to express those reservations. My aim was to prevent formal voting on the resolution by consensus. I achieved this understanding and announced the decision in the following terms, “Since it is the President’s understanding that the draft resolution has unanimous support in this Council, there appears to be no necessity on this occasion for it to be formally voted on. In the circumstances, I wish to announce that the draft resolution has been adopted and to indicate that all fifteen members participated in the consensus.”
It was a rather unusual way to achieve a consensus. I am convinced that if the draft resolution had gone to a vote, there would have been requests for voting to be done paragraph by paragraph, thus enabling those members who wished to do so, to vote against or abstain on those paragraphs on which they had misgivings. What was important, was the demonstration of unity of the Security Council on an issue which evoked such passion and commanded such widespread international attention.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 1981 provided the setting for another perception of consensus. Here I give Mrs Thatcher’s account, recorded in her book entitled The Downing Street Years. In that book, Mrs Thatcher recalled that in the course of the Melbourne Conference, there was an argument about an issue to be reported in the final Communiqué, which was being drafted. She observed as follows, “at one point, Forbes Burnham said that we must achieve consensus. I asked him what he meant by ‘consensus’ - a word of which I had heard all too much - and he replied that ‘it is something you have if you cannot get agreement.’ This seemed to be an excellent definition.”
In the final analysis, no matter the language used, the announcement of a consensus will depend upon the courage, strength and capacity of the Presiding Officer as well as the willingness of the participants to accept the ruling of the Presiding Officer.
Guyana has on many occasions sought election to bodies on international organisations. The election has been of a named representative or a citizen to a technical or professional body, or of the country to a seat on an organ the membership of which is limited. There are three instances of candidatures by Guyana, which had special significance for me. The first was Guyana’s election to the Security Council to serve for 1975 and 1976. The second was the election of Guyana to the Co-ordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement, at the Sixth Summit held in Havana in 1979. The third was the election of Dr Mohamed Shahabuddeen to a seat on the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The decision to seek election to an office or a position in an international organisation or a seat on an international body should not be taken whimsically. There should be a careful assessment of the chances of success as well as of the capacity to function effectively. This usually requires a willingness to commit resources, human and financial, for the execution of the functions. In my long association with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs there was never a case of an unsuccessful candidature by Guyana.
In most cases, careful, structured and intensive lobbying is an absolute necessity. This can be carried out in several ways. It can involve correspondence with state capital, with diplomatic representatives in one’s capital and with representatives to the particular organisation in the city where that organisation is located. Inevitably however, much legwork is required. Visits have to be made to the representatives of the countries whose support is being sought and sometimes to state capitals. Not infrequently as well, intensive work in the corridors of international organisations is necessary. Naturally, the main objective of a lobbying exercise is to obtain as many promises of support as possible. There is danger here and caution is advisable. Among practitioners of the art of lobbying there is a golden rule, which it is perilous to ignore. The truism is that a promise made in the delegates’ lounge is not always fulfilled in the voting arena!
In lobbying for elections, states do trade-offs; in other words, support is given on condition that a reciprocal arrangement is made for support to the giving state for a candidature of its own or a vote on a resolution. A candidature can face difficulties for several reasons. A country’s reputation for trustworthiness and reliability and its performance record are factors which are taken into account. So too can be a candidate’s qualifications in the widest sense. A difficulty can occur when an approach is made to a state, which has already committed its support to another candidate.
When the decision was taken in 1974 to seek election to the Security Council, Guyana had already established a reputation as a country whose representatives make serious and effective contributions at the UN, international conferences, in committees and other bodies of international organisations. The quality of Guyana’s participation and advocacy was widely recognised. Guyana also participated effectively in other multilateral gatherings - the Commonwealth, and the Non-Aligned Movement, etc. - and was very active in the regional integration process in the Caribbean. More generally Guyana was a staunch advocate of economic co-operation among developing countries as well as the need for international economic relations to be based upon justice and equity rather than upon hegemony, exploitation and domination.
Overarching all of this however was Guyana’s successful hosting of the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned Countries in 1972 and the active and positive role Guyana played in the establishment of the ACP Group, the Group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, as well as its role as a spokesman for the Caribbean in the negotiations with what was then the European Economic Community. It was therefore with much confidence that Guyana launched its candidacy for a seat in the Security Council. Guyana had credible assets.
The Security Council
Approaches for support were made early to Caricom countries. Action was taken as well, at the United Nations to secure the support of the Latin American and Caribbean Group and by meeting with individual ambassadors and representatives seeking their countries’ support. Noel Sinclair, who was a member of staff of the Permanent Mission at the time, and I visited the Permanent Mission of each Latin American and Caribbean state in New York. In most cases we were informed that the Governments would be consulted and the decisions communicated later. We also approached in a structured way, countries of the Commonwealth, Non-Aligned and others. Trade-offs were done.
In one case, the support of one country was ‘traded’ for a commitment of a Guyana vote for a resolution sponsored by that country. These efforts were successful and Guyana was elected as a member of the Security Council occupying one of the two seats allocated to the Latin American and Caribbean region.
The Non-Alignment Movement
In the Non-aligned Movement, elections to the Co-ordinating Bureau of the Movement were usually hotly contested. The distribution of seats was done on a regional basis. At the Summit in Havana in August 1979, the membership of the Co-ordinating Bureau was set at thirty-six. Allocation was as follows: Africa 17; Asia 12; Latin America 5 and Europe 1. Selection of the regional members was done by the region itself. Each region has a Chairman, usually for one month, designated by its own procedures. For the purpose of determining the successful candidates, for the Latin America and Caribbean region, the Chairman of the Group conducted a straw poll, since formal voting is not practised in the Movement. On the basis of that poll, Jamaica, Guyana and Panama were clear selectees. Cuba, by virtue of being the Chairman of the Conference, automatically became a member of the Bureau. The fifth was shared by Peru and Grenada, Peru for the first half and Grenada for the second half of the three-year term. That result was achieved by some unusual actions by some Latin American and Caribbean countries in the straw polling exercise. Grenada had advanced its candidature late. This caused complications in relation to the disposition of states since commitments were made prior to the Grenada announcement. The tie between Peru and Grenada occurred because some states did not vote for themselves.
After reflecting on Guyana’s considerable experience in a management position, I began to canvass among members of the movement for a change in the mechanism of selection for membership of the Bureau. I came to the conclusion that some countries sought election as a matter of prestige but were not very active at the performance level in the execution of their duties as members of the Bureau. I therefore began to discuss with members of the Movement the idea that the Movement should consider the proposal that there should be no limitation on the size of the Co-ordinating Bureau but that all members which expressed a wish to serve should be allowed to do so. My belief was that once the element of prestige was removed from the process of selection for membership of the Bureau, some countries would no longer seek to be members. This point of view gained acceptance at the Meeting of Foreign Ministers in New Delhi. Thus acrimony which accompanies the elections as a result of compelling a choice between friendly states was avoided.
The International Court of Justice
The most celebrated of the successful candidatures was that which saw the election of Dr Mohamed Shahabuddeen as a Judge on the International Court of Justice in 1985. Dr Shahabuddeen’s election was a triumph for Guyana’s diplomacy. It resulted from the execution of a well-articulated strategy and clearly defined tactics which combined the country’s political and diplomatic assets with the eminent qualities of the candidate. It was a difficult candidature for Guyana because of two constraining factors. Firstly, Dr Shahabuddeen was running against an incumbent Brazilian judge. Secondly, there was a candidate from another Caricom country, Jamaica. Caricom, therefore, faced the difficult task of choosing which to support. In the result however, the majority of Caricom states committed support to Dr Shahabuddeen.
An approach was therefore made to individual countries in the Latin American and the Caribbean and beyond. Guyana’s connections in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth were used to great effect. In addition, Dr Shahabuddeen, whose credentials were impeccable - qualifications, publications and experience - had established his own network of connections through his involvement in Conferences such as the Non-Aligned Movement, the Commonwealth Law Ministers and the Caricom and Commonwealth Heads of Government. President Hoyte wrote to many of his colleague Heads of State or Government. I as Foreign Minister did likewise to my colleagues. A special approach was made as well to the Organisation of African Unity, the Organisation of Islamic States and the Arab League.
Lobbying can have interesting sidelights. One Foreign Minister whose country agreed to support Dr Shahabuddeen, asked me whether Guyana was really expecting to defeat the Brazilian candidate, a feat which he thought difficult. His conjecture was that by advancing Dr Shahabuddeen’s candidature Guyana was “testing the waters” so to speak with a view to enhancing Dr Shahabuddeen’s chances the next time around. Also some countries indicated that they had already given their commitment to Brazil.
We conveyed to them our conviction that the election would not be decided on the first round of balloting. Additional balloting would therefore take place during which countries, as they sometimes do, change their vote.
In order to intensify Guyana’s lobbying at the United Nations where the elections took place, the advice of the Foreign Minister of a friendly country was accepted and Noel Sinclair who was then serving as Director-General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was sent to New York, to work solely on Dr Shahabuddeen’s candidature. Mr Sinclair did a tremendous job. The results of the efforts are now a matter of history.