Action Phase: Making Decisions
The debate of an agenda item is usually followed by the adoption of resolutions/decisions. GA resolutions reflect the degree of intergovernmental agreement, the evolution of political ideas and the state of global cooperation on a given topic.
This section deals with the process leading to the adoption of a resolution or decision. It involves drafting a text, tabling a draft resolution and deciding (“taking action”) on it. Various forms of consultations and negotiations take place during the process in an attempt to reach consensus or at least get as close as possible to it.
1. Drafting a resolution text
Most draft resolutions are initially written by a Member State. Upon request, the UN Secretariat may assist Member States in the drafting process. The Member State initiating and drafting a resolution text is called the “sponsor” of the resolution, or the “main sponsor” if there are co-sponsors.
Many resolutions are based on past decisions and contain only few changes from year to year. When this occurs, sponsors are strongly encouraged to highlight the parts of the texts that are different from previous resolutions.
Sometimes, new resolutions are based on reports of the Secretary-General or of a subsidiary body that contain recommendations for draft resolutions.
2. Tabling the draft resolution (L-document)
“Tabling” is a technical term for formally submitting a draft resolution text to the GA. The GA Rules of Procedure refer to draft resolutions as “proposals.”
Only Member States or the PGA can table draft resolutions. When a group of Member States tables a resolution, it is usually done by the group’s chair on behalf of the group.
A draft resolution must be tabled under a specific agenda item. The main sponsor of a draft resolution does not have to wait for the General Debate to be concluded to table a resolution.This is possible from the moment the GA agenda is adopted. No resolution can be tabled after the agenda item is closed, unless the GA formally decides to reopen it. While delegations try to table all draft resolutions before the debate on a particular agenda item takes place, this is much more difficult to accomplish at MUN simulations.
To be tabled, the draft text needs to be submitted in person to a GA Affairs Officer during any formal GA meeting or at the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management offices. The submission must include one electronic version and one hard copy of the draft text, signed and dated on every page, and a list of initial co-sponsors. It also must indicate the agenda item under which the draft resolution is tabled. The draft text is considered formally submitted when the submission certificate has been signed by the sponsor and DGACM. This is something that could be easily implemented at a MUN simulation by requiring all draft resolutions are tabled with the Secretary of a Committee.
Once tabled, the text is formatted by the Secretariat into an official GA document, called an “L-document”, which is translated into all six official languages and circulated to all Member States. The Secretariat requires a minimum of three days to process a draft resolution. The “L” in L-documents stands for “limited distribution.” In the era before e-mail, hard-copies of L-documents were only distributed to the Permanent Missions and not sent to Member States’ capitals. Within the context of MUN simulations, draft resolutions are usually not translated and need to be circulated to all delegates in a Committee as soon as possible.
XUpon invitation of the main sponsor, Member States can formally express their support for a draft resolution by “co-sponsoring” it. Co-sponsoring is done by signing an official co-sponsor form, available from the main sponsor. The “L-document” lists only the co-sponsors who sign the co-sponsor form before the draft is tabled. An addendum to the “L-document” lists Member States who sign the co-sponsor form later. Their names are read out by a GA Affairs Officer before the adoption of the resolution. The list is closed immediately after the resolution is adopted. Some MUN simulations requires a specific number of co-sponsors in order for a resolution to be considered. There are no such limitations in the GA.
Sponsors or co-sponsors ‘own’ a draft resolution. That is to say the text is theirs and, although they will usually discuss it with other delegations, any changes are made by them. Changes made to a draft proposal by the proposer(s) are called revisions.
Many delegations spend much of their time at a conference discussing their draft proposals with other delegations and in co-sponsors’ groups considering what revisions are to be accepted. To co-sponsor a resolution is to give it strong support.
All co-sponsors will be included in the verbatim record of the meeting when the draft resolution is adopted. However, the list of co-sponsors is not part of the final published version of the resolution.
- Drafting and Negotiation
Drafting and negotiation are closely related because the subject of negotiations often involves agreeing on the words that are used to describe an action that is to be taken on a particular agenda item.
- Consideration and action on a draft resolution
Once tabled, a draft resolution/decision is considered by the GA. This means that the L-document is introduced and a decision on its adoption is taken. The latter is called “taking action.”
DGACM will consult with the sponsors to decide on the date of the formal plenary meeting that will consider the L-document. If there is more than one resolution introduced under the same agenda item, the resolutions are scheduled for action in the order they were tabled. Until action is taken, the main sponsor can withdraw the draft resolution/decision anytime, as long as no amendments have been proposed by another Member State. A withdrawn draft resolution can be reintroduced by another Member State.
The “24-hour rule” requires that a draft resolution be circulated to all Member States the day before it can be considered for adoption. This rule can be waived by an oral decision.
- Formal introduction of the L-document
At the formal meeting considering the L-document, the sponsor of the draft resolution/decision can introduce the draft text, summarizing its content and purpose and pointing out possible spelling errors and other mistakes. The introduction can be followed by action on the draft resolution/decision. Taking action can also be deferred, if further consultations and negotiations are warranted. Usually there is no action on resolutions/decisions before the debate on the agenda item has been concluded.
In the Plenary, Member States do not make statements in response to the introduction of the L-document, with the exception of exercising the right of reply or if the debate on the item continues. Upon action on the draft resolution, explanations of vote can be made. In Main Committees the introduction of an L-document can be followed by general comments.
3. Taking Action
A draft resolution/decision can be adopted by consensus or by a vote. Decisions in the GA are taken by simple majority or by a two-thirds majority. According to the GA Rules of Procedure the following “important questions” require a two-thirds majority:
• maintenance of international peace and security
• the admission of new members
• the suspension and expulsion of members
• all budgetary questions.
The GA decides by a simple majority to include additional issues among the “important questions.”
A majority is calculated based on the number of “members present and voting” (i.e., casting an affirmative or negative vote). Abstentions are not counted as “voting.”
In the case of a tie in the Plenary, the vote is repeated once. The draft resolution/decision is rejected if the second vote also results in a tie. In the case of a tie in a Main Committee, the draft resolution/decision is rejected without a second vote.
- Negotiation and consultation practices
There is a myriad of practices for consulting Member States on a draft resolution or decision before its formal adoption. Three basic models can be distinguished.
1. Negotiations before tabling
The main sponsor consults with Member States and holds informal negotiations on the draft before tabling the “best version possible.” This allows for action to be taken immediately after the introduction of the L-document. This is the normal practice in the Plenary.
2. Negotiations after tabling
The main sponsor tables a draft resolution or decision without prior consultations. After the introduction of the L-document, informal negotiations take place, led by either the main sponsor or by a facilitator appointed by the Chair of a Main Committee. If consensus is reached, the negotiated text will replace the original draft. This is done in two ways. Either the sponsor withdraws the original L-document, and a new L-document is issued after a bureau member has tabled the negotiated text. Or, the sponsor submits the negotiated text as a revision of the original L-document (issued as L.xx/Rev.1). In both cases, the resolution/ decision is adopted by consensus. If the negotiations do not result in consensus, the sponsor can either request action on the original L-document or on the negotiated text (issued as L.xx/Rev.1). In both cases, the draft resolution/decision is submitted to a vote, often accompanied by proposals for amendments and requests for paragraph votes.
3. PGA-led consultations
GA resolutions can mandate the PGA to lead consultations on a specific issue or on resolutions/decisions such as an outcome document or the modalities for a high-level GA event. In such cases, the PGA appoints one or more Permanent Representatives as facilitators.
If consensus is reached, the PGA can table the resolution/decision in his/her name. If no consensus is reached, a procedural decision is adopted, sometimes requesting further consultations at a future session of the GA.
- Proposals, revisions, amendments
At some stage a proposal must be formally tabled or introduced to the conference. In most conferences the text has to be circulated by the Secretariat to all delegations at least 24 hours before it is formally introduced. In formally tabling the draft resolution or other proposal, the sponsor or lead co-sponsor makes a statement explaining the purpose and contents of the proposal and giving argumentation in support of it.
Up to that point it has no formal existence. Thereafter it can still be revised (or indeed withdrawn) by its proponents and once it comes up for decision, it can be changed –this time by the conference as a whole. Changes by the conference as a whole are called amendments and each draft amendment must be formally proposed (i.e. tabled) to the conference.
Proposals for procedural matters are called motions. Rules of Procedure typically provide for procedural motions to be treated differently from substantive proposals. They usually provide for limitations on debate and often allow them to be decided by voting.
- Programme budget implications of draft resolutions
Before action can be taken on a draft resolution, the Committee must consider if there are any budgetary implications that might occur as a result of the actions that are proposed in the draft. According to Rule 153 of the GA’s Rules of Procedure:
“No resolution involving expenditure shall be recommended by a committee for approval by the General Assembly unless it is accompanied by an estimate of expenditures prepared by the Secretary-General. No resolution in respect of which expenditures are anticipated by the Secretary-General shall be voted by the General Assembly until the Administrative and Budgetary Committee (Fifth Committee) has had an opportunity of stating the effect of the proposal upon the budget estimates of the United Nations.”
Before taking action on a resolution the Secretary-General submits a statement of the programme budget implications (PBI) associated with a particular draft resolution. The Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) then issues a related report. The Fifth Committee considers both before submitting its report to the Committee. Just before Member States take action on a resolution, the Secretary reads the report to all the delegates because it is important for them to know what the financial implications are if the resolution is adopted.
Model UN simulations do not include this component but it is important for delegates to be aware of the budgetary implications of what they are proposing. We recommend that MUN simulations find a reasonable way to work this in. If the Fifth Committee is not being simulated, you could ask a few delegates with a background in economics to serve as representatives of the Fifth Committee, have them review each draft resolution and submit a short report to the Committee before action is taken on it. It is a nice addition to the simulation because it forces delegates to consider whether their proposals could ever be implemented given the resources that are available.
Voting versus Consensus
1. Why consensus is preferred
Originally, the United Nations and its specialized agencies took all decisions by voting; but that practice caused dissatisfaction, especially on the part of the developing countries, so much so that today, throughout the United Nations system there is a strong preference for taking decisions by consensus instead of voting. Even those bodies that most frequently resort to voting (notably the General Assembly and the Security Council) take considerable trouble to avoid doing so if possible.
This preference is even stronger outside the United Nations system, where many bodies take all their decisions by consensus (or in some cases vote only on procedural matters, deciding all substantive issues by consensus). Some Rules of Procedure do not allow voting or allow it only on procedural issues. Many regional associations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Pacific Forum and political groups such as the G77 and the G8 never vote. There are many reasons for this preference:
- Many delegates and governments dislike the confrontational element that is unavoidable in taking a decision by vote.
- Many governments consider voting (in which some are defeated) an inappropriate mode of decision-making between sovereign states. At times, some delegates and governments wish to avoid having to choose how to vote.
- At times, some delegates and governments wish to reduce the possibility of pressure or recriminations about the way they vote.
- If a delegate or government does not hold a strong view on a particular issue, it can seem more appropriate to join consensus on that issue rather than vote in favour of it.
- If a delegate or government has reservations about a proposal or even considerable objections, that delegate or government might be willing to join consensus on the grounds that this is the will of the vast majority, but would find it difficult to vote in favour of the proposal. This gives any delegation that supports the proposal an incentive to avoid a vote.
- Many governments consider that decision-making by consensus increases their ability to influence the outcome of negotiations. It gives them a veto, which can not only enable them to prevent a conference from taking a decision they find intolerable, it can also enable them to achieve conference outcomes that they want. (How it does this is more fully explained below under Consequences of the preference for consensus).
- The governments of some large or otherwise powerful countries may prefer to avoid decision-making in a process (voting) where they count for no more than the smallest and weakest Member State.
2. Why conferences sometimes vote
With such strong reasons for preferring consensus it may seem surprising that conferences ever vote. But they can have many reasons to do so:
- Taking a decision by consensus is quicker than voting, but negotiating to consensus is sometimes very time-consuming. This is probably one reason that procedural questions are more readily put to the vote than substantive ones.
- The most obvious reason for voting, however, is inability to reach consensus. This may occur, for example, if positions are simply too far apart or if delegates lack the time or the empathy and ingenuity to develop proposals on which consensus would be possible.
- At times, when divisions are deep, governments or their delegates may wish to make a demonstration of the strength of their attitude.
- At times, it suits governments or individual delegates to engineer a demonstration of how isolated a government is or perhaps of how defiant that government is, despite the majority being against it.
- Some delegates seem to have a preference for the drama and confrontation involved in a vote. Some get so heated in negotiation that they become unwilling to adjust their position to meet the concerns of others, thereby making consensus impossible.
- Sometimes a government or delegate may wish to create a situation in which a vote is unavoidable, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the issue before the conference (e.g. to put pressure on another government on an entirely different issue).
3. Consequences of the preference for consensus
The strong preference for consensus often shapes negotiations on a proposal before the conference. If a formal objection by a single delegation is sufficient to block consensus, every delegate has that power and many try to use it to extract concessions from other delegations. If the rules or traditions of the conference do not allow voting, every delegation has the equivalent of veto power. Even if a conference has the legal ability to vote, the preference for a consensus decision may be so strong that each delegation effectively has a veto.
So delegates promoting a proposal will often make concessions (i.e. accept compromises) for the sake of securing consensus. This gives other delegations an increased ability to have the conference take decisions that are closer to their wishes. These other delegations rarely want the conference to take no decision and may support some aspects of what is proposed. Adoption of the proposal, especially with compromises that accommodate their concerns to a degree, is far preferable from their point of view than the conference taking no decision. Therefore in negotiating compromises they are conscious not only of their government’s preferences on particular points but also of its wish that the conference reach a decision. For both the promoters of a proposal and those who have problems with certain aspects of it, there are then strong incentives to find a text which they can both accept. This makes for productive negotiations.
As more and more delegations reach what they judge to be the most acceptable outcome available, those still holding out (i.e. using their ability to block consensus and thus prevent the conference from reaching any decision at all) are increasingly isolated and may come under growing pressure to accept what is on offer.
The issue remains of a government whose views are so out-of-step with those of the overwhelming majority in a conference and moreover is so selfish as to wish to prevent the conference from taking a decision it wants to take –perhaps to meet what most governments see as a pressing need.
As long as there is a possibility of voting, a delegation which presses a minority view too far runs the risk that others will insist on a vote (which it will lose). Then not only will the conference be able to take its decision but the terms of that decision may be different from the compromise text that was developed in an attempt to reach consensus. The majority may have no need to make concession to the minority. So, if there is a vote, some delegations who have achieved concessions they consider important may see these concessions withdrawn. They will have reason to be displeased with the delegation(s) blocking consensus and to try to persuade it to desist and avoid a vote –and thus protect the concessions they have won. Again, this favours productive negotiations.
Methods of expressing votes
For questions other than elections, most votes are not secret. There are two ways in which delegates can be invited to vote:
1. By show of hands
The routine way of voting is that the Chairman or secretary asks, ‘All those in favour please raise your hand (or name plate).’ The secretariat then counts these. The Chairman/secretary next calls for those against the proposal to signify their position in the same way. After these are counted, the Chairman/secretary calls on those abstaining. The secretary or Chairman then announces the outcome and the Chairman announces the consequent decision.
Although the votes of those voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and those abstaining are totalled and recorded, it is not always easy to see how each delegation voted and that is not reported in the records of the conference. This is called an unrecorded (or non-recorded) vote.
2. By roll call
The Rules of Procedure of many conferences provide that, if any delegation so requests or if the conference agrees, there will be a roll-call vote. In that case a letter is drawn at random and the secretary, starting with the first delegation whose name begins with that letter, calls on each delegation in turn to say how they vote. In this case, the conference Secretariat records for the conference report not only the number of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes and abstentions, but also how each delegation voted. For this reason, a roll-call vote is called a recorded vote.