(C-Fam) The longstanding way UN negotiations come to agreement is with consensus rather than voting. Though consensus has changed over the years, it still allows a relatively small group of countries to block the political wishes of larger groups. This may be changing.
Progressive countries are increasingly frustrated that consensus has in some venues blocked both abortion and the LGBT agenda. This just happened in the Commission on Social Development.
The changes will be discussed in April at the next session of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD). The annual commission has been the scene of controversial negotiations on issues like abortion and sexual orientation and gender identity for decades. In three of the last four years, it has failed to reach an agreement. This is a source of frustration and embarrassment.
The written and unwritten rules of diplomacy require adoption of diplomatic agreements on the basis of unanimous consensus. This is considered the gold standard in all international proceedings. Agreements should be adopted without a vote and without objections. The simple threat of calling a vote and thwarting consensus is enough to stop a text from being adopted.
Diplomats preparing the next session of the commission asked for suggestions on how the working methods of the commission can be improved. Specifically, they were asked if the commission should move away from adoption of documents by consensus.
Socially conservative countries argue the deadlock on controversial issues is not because of longstanding UN procedures, but the inflexibility of progressive countries who promote abortion and LGBT issues and are unwilling to compromise.
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The U.S. suggested that the commission stick to consensus-based adoption. It urged the commission to avoid “language on sensitive issues on which consensus has not been possible in previous years” and “always” include a “sovereignty clause” to safeguard national prerogatives. The exclusion of the sovereignty clause was a large contributing factor in the failure of the commission to reach an agreement in recent years.
Similarly, the Russian Federation blamed the failure to reach consensus on “persistent attempts by a part of the CPD membership to include in the draft resolutions terms/concepts not in line with and stepping aside from” previous UN agreements. This is understood as referring to notions such as “sexual rights” and “LGBT rights” by diplomats working on the commission.
Progressive countries on the other hand expressed a willingness to change the rules in order to get the controversial issues into agreements.
The Netherlands, a leading progressive nation, suggested “the Commission should consider voting as a way to not block discussions and progress.”
Denmark similarly called on diplomats to “be open to consider alternative methods of adoption when taking action, including by voting.”
Canada suggested “the Commission voting on selected paragraphs without requesting a vote on the resolution as a whole.” This could ensure that controversial language gets into agreements of the commission while trying to maintain a veneer of consensus.
International Planned Parenthood Federation also called on the commission to drop consensus. And they pushed back against suggestions that controversial issues could be dropped.
“The argument that contentious issues such as SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) should not be included in negotiations is inherently flawed,” the abortion industry giant argued.
The abortion industry giant is a main participant in the commission each year. The policies adopted at the commission direct political and financial support to IPPF affiliates around the world who provide abortion, contraception, comprehensive sexuality education, and HIV/AIDS testing.