Death By Consensus

The U.N. World Summit is at risk of failure not because reform proposals on the table are weak, but because U.N. delegates will water down good reforms by taking consensus to the extreme.

As anyone who has attended a family event with young children knows, it is almost impossible to satisfy everyone at the same time. This is exactly the situation that is facing the United Nations this month, as the very large family of 170 heads of state arrive to sign off on a series of reforms which could change the organization and its role in the world for the better.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annans proposal is ingenious, recognizing the diversity of demands in the family. Poor countries want the United Nationsmore engaged in development, equalizing conditions for world trade, relieving debt, and getting the rich nations to honor their development assistance pledges. Rich countries want the global body to insist on a blitz on corruption, greater accountability, more private sector initiatives, and a stable partnership between rich and poor. Security proposals include a peace-building commission to assist countries dealing with the aftermath of conflict, supporting a responsibility to protect to avoid another Rwanda by making it easier to authorize intervention for humanitarian purposes, and a new definition of terrorism. These are noble and lofty aims for the organization.

Nevertheless, as we all know, children can be unruly, and sometimes they have sets of demands that will never be fully satisfied. The successful negotiator will either try to balance each childs demands and search for a consensus, or chose some sort of system that will ensure fair representation and decision making. And that is precisely the situation that currently faces the United Nations. Despite the fact that the General Assembly has already chosen the latter system (one vote per member state), and despite the fact that this system is subject to much criticism, it is the system we have. One child, one vote. But it has been crippled by a norm that has existed within the General Assembly for too long: the search for consensus, which is often code for unanimity.

Indeed, consensus is an admirable aim, and wouldnt the world be a wonderful place if this was always possible? But would anything ever change? The search for consensus means placating a wider spectrum of parties, and a wider range of interests. So the final proposal that arrives at the table is often a shadow of its former self. The grand aspirations and ideas turn into meaningless pieces of paper.

This is nothing new for U.N. delegates. Time and again, they have seen meaningful resolutions come to the floor with a good chance of being passed by the two-thirds majority, only to be diluted in the name of consensus. Annan himself summed up the problem in a recent interview: Where you have a large majority of members who want something, one should not allow a small minority to withhold their consent unreasonably. They should have the courage to vote and take decisions. But they tend to want to get consensus at all costs, and therefore you have 191 vetoes.

In some cases, consensus and incremental change can lead to meaningful and lasting reform. But now the United Nations and its member states need bold reform, not watered-down proposals. Member states should cast up or down votes. Resolutions should pass or fail. And U.N. delegates should do the business of representing their countries interests in the manner the U.N. Charter first envisioned 60 years ago.

Member states know this is a crucial moment for the organization, and they know that marked changes are needed for the United Nationsto remain relevant. If the reform agenda fails, the irony will be that it wont be because they lacked the votes to make reform possible. Itll be because the world body insisted on treating its delegates like the worst sort of children.

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